I Follow People I Disagree With, You Should Too
In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains a terrifying phenomenon observed in humans where those with the least amount of knowledge or skills in a certain area consistently overestimate their abilities.
According to Psychology Today, “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”
As our government continues to grow far beyond the intentions and limits put forth by our founders, so do the number of subjects that fall under the purview of public control. From tech policy to healthcare to taxes and trade, it is laughable to think that any single person could possess an adequate knowledge of all of the areas where government leaves its fingerprints. Yet few seem to recognize the limits of their own political prowess.
Compounding the problem is the ever-growing prevalence of echo chambers across our society. Americans live in social bubbles. Despite the country’s incredible diversity, most of us are startlingly unlikely to intimately know anyone that comes from a different religious, ethnic, socioeconomic, or cultural background. Not only does that make our lives less rich and interesting, it also makes us less informed, more open to bias and stereotypes, and susceptible to fear-mongering.
This problem extends into our political system and discourse, where few keep associations with those across the aisle, our social media platforms curtail our newsfeeds to match our beliefs and interests, and most seek out media outlets that regurgitate their preferred narrative.
With all of this in mind, can anyone really be surprised our country is so hyper-partisan and divisive?
The cold hard truth is that you cannot really be empathetic to people you do not actually know. You cannot accurately gauge what drives their beliefs or choices if you have never heard them explained; you will lack perspective and be easily misled. Likely you’ll find yourself debating strawman arguments and assuming those who disagree with you are filled with malice.
Frankly, that’s no way to live. But breaking out of these confines takes intentionality, work, and a dedication to open-mindedness. We need to develop an intellectual humility, an openness to being wrong, and a curiosity about the experiences and perspectives of people who land differently on issues than we might. We need to seek out relationships – both online and in real life – with people who think differently than we do, and we need to learn to engage in respectful and thoughtful discourse.
I’ve been fortunate to work in a field that provides me with ample opportunities to do just that. I work with Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Progressives, and Independents in states across this country to pass criminal justice reform bills. Through that process, I get to intimately know colleagues, activists, and politicians who are far removed from my ideology (classical liberal), and what I find is we tend to really like one another. I for one very much enjoy our lively debates and often find we don’t land as far apart as it might seem on issues.
I also find and follow people with whom I disagree online. Some of my favorite journalists are left-wingers like Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey. I by no means agree with them on the majority of their positions, but I can find commonality with them on a few key subjects, and I know they are smart, thoughtful, well-researched writers.
By following them, I gain a better understanding of the thought-processes and arguments that motivate the arguments for policies to the left of me. This insight either reveals holes in my own arguments, places we might have commonality, or at the very least, helps me better defend my stance. You cannot adequately argue your own position before first being able to fairly articulate the side of your opponent.
I also seek out other relationships that might help expand my worldview. In Nashville, I joined a multi-ethnic church and spent my Sundays with other believers whose countries of origins, skin tones, and even styles of worship looked nothing like mine. It was one of the most fundamental decisions of my life. There are bonds far more powerful than politics.
I try to frequent businesses owned by people of color. When asked, I join my friends of different religious backgrounds for their services. I volunteer. I go to events hosted by Democrats. And it’s still not enough, but, I try.
Over the years, my desire to break out of my bubble has shaped and shifted me. Where I once was a pretty generic Republican who would follow the party anywhere, I now think for myself and consider perspectives outside of my own echo chamber.
When the GOP takes a hardline stance against immigrants, my stance is no longer just informed economically (please read Wealth of Nations for the love of God), it’s informed by the people I shared a pew with who came from across the globe and love America every bit as much as me. When issues of racial bias present themselves in our government, I can’t turn a blind eye – because I know that my Black colleagues and friends sit up at night worrying about their children in our system. Now, it keeps me up too.
And I am not the only one who is changed because of this. So often I hear from progressives and Democrats who are open to learning about free-market policies because they met me and found I wasn’t the conservative caricature they were expecting either.
If we want our country to be less divisive, we have to first change ourselves. Taking that first step can be scary, but it certainly shouldn’t be as scary as the thought of remaining ignorant.