In the first weeks after Donald Trump’s shocking US election win, the question on every pundit’s mind seemed to be: How did liberals not see this coming? To many it seemed that America was divided not only politically and geographically, but mentally and spiritually as well.
A rash of post-election thinkpieces suggested that liberals did not fully comprehend what their compatriots in red states were thinking because the world has become hopelessly segmented. Instead, we inhabit a series of comfy ideological bubbles that provide us with an endless stream of rhetorical validation. Liberals, it was suggested, didn’t seriously consider the possibility of president Trump because we rarely hear anything that we don’t want to nowadays.
The idea that Americans now indulge in a kind of ideological self-segregation is increasingly well-supported. What is not so clear, however, is how to fix it. Ever since Eli Pariser coined “the filter bubble,” some have argued that our problem may be algorithmic, meaning platforms like Facebook have built their business on feeding us things we find agreeable. Earlier in February, Mark Zuckerberg broke with Facebook’s previous resistance to this idea, conceding that the social media giant has a role to play in stopping political sensationalism.
Other theories suggests that we might be the problem. Even those who think that platforms are the problem say they operate symbiotically with our own likes and dislikes. Many of us are so deeply averse to alternative points of view that we will take considerable pains to avoid them. Studies of “motivated ignorance” have shown that people will turn down cash offered to them to read an article they disagree with. In this regard, liberals are at least as bad as conservatives when it comes to filtering their points of view.
Why you should seek out alternate points of view
“So what?” you may ask. If we really are exasperated, even threatened, by disagreeable opinions, why shouldn’t we be allowed to avoid them? Two instincts lead me—a political progressive and the author of a bubble-busting column for The Guardian—to seek out conservative viewpoints.
The first has to do with the practical matter of wanting to be better prepared for the next election. I have found that those who isolate themselves from their political opponents are prone to either underestimating them by treating them as morons, or overestimating them by viewing them as monsters.
Just like liberals, conservatives nurse hopes and doubts, not least about our shared president. They fight among themselves. They back the wrong horses, and make bad predictions. They make principled stands, and sometimes they suffer for them.
Understanding all this—and the fact that conservatives are divided over Trump, too—is important. Republicans are not super villains, and to treat them as if they are is both wrong and pointless. We need a more realistic baseline for our disagreements. If we only ever debate a caricature of our opponents, we greatly reduce our chances of convincing anyone who doesn’t automatically validate our opinions. Remember, nothing is more constant in human history than disagreements about what constitutes the good life.
This brings me to the second reason why I think it is important to seek out alternative points of view: If we don’t, we can’t fully understand our communities, our country, or really what it means to be human. This country is divided roughly in half, politically. To ignore this reality is to cut ourselves off from the possibility of understanding America’s very history, and from considering our future.
When I read a piece by a conservative Christian arguing that men start wearing hats again as a sign of civility, I feel not just bemused disagreement, but wonder. When another writer offers a close reading of the works of novelist Hilary Mantel and concludes that she may be possessed, I am forced to reassess my complacency about living in a secular, modern state. When I find that one of the most incisive critics of the national security state works for a website founded by Pat Buchanan, I am forced to concede that my side may not have all the answers.
The best way to burst your filter bubble
In 2017, you can keep up with the other side without visiting their websites. My method for accessing this material is simple. I have a section of my RSS feed-reader Feedly devoted to conservative sites. (For those not familiar with what an RSS feed is, it’s a blog aggregator system that is relatively easy to set-up.) Once a week, usually on a Sunday evening, I scroll through the feed and send the interesting-looking links to Pocket, a save-it-for-later site. Then I sit down with my iPad Mini and plough through it. (Sometimes I find that a strong drink helps with this part of the process.) The stuff I want to keep for future reference, I save to Evernote. Now and then an article leads me to add a new site to the feed reader.
I monitor the worst of the worst—the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and the blithering misogynists of the “manosphere”—in the interest of professional due diligence. But I wouldn’t send my column’s readers in those directions. Liberal readers should slowly. Outlets like National Review, First Things, Reason, and The American Conservative are good places to start and all are serious about providing thoughtful conservative commentary for their conservative readership. Similarly, I would send conservative readers to solidly liberal sites like Slate, Pro Publica, or the Nation.
Not everyone agrees with my approach, of course. Several of my friends on the left have pushed back when I advocate for engaging with conservative thinking. They ask me why I’m promoting this stuff, and why I’m sending people off to read it.
A lot of these objections come down to a fear of pollution, as if conservative ideology might be contagious. I think that this underestimates how robust most of our basic beliefs and commitments are. In fact, my study of right-wing beliefs has, if anything, redoubled my commitment to progressive notions of equality. Similarly, among the many committed anti-fascist researchers I know, their immersion has actually acted as a whetstone for sharpening their opposing arguments. To understand is not consistently to agree.
Pushing yourself outside of an ideological filter bubble may not always lead you to common ground. In my opinion, right-wing discourse is too often loaded with various prejudices for me to be too optimistic about a consistent meeting of minds. But in my case, it has provided a better idea of what liberals are up against, and why my neighbor walks around in that Trump cap.