How to stay rational in a polarized world
We take comfort in having our beliefs validated — it’s a very human impulse. But it can lead us astray — as individuals and as a nation. Never before has it been so easy to find affirmation in one’s preferred media outlet, website or political party, all of which cater to constituents’ views, and thus, their fragile senses of self. As students at the College of William and Mary, an institution which prides itself on promoting openness to ideas and a willingness to have one’s beliefs challenged, we must be wary of this trait in ourselves. We must maintain a healthy skepticism of what powerful people with whom we agree tell us and avoid making up our minds without giving matters serious thought.
It’s a shocking paradox that with all of the world’s knowledge at our disposal, Americans know so little and believe so much that is untrue. One would think that the key to a more informed public would be a greater availability of accurate information. While I still think that is true, it isn’t everything. When fearful and angry people take to the television or the Internet, they don’t normally look for sources that tell them new information. The conservative may take to Fox News or Redstate.com, or like one of the many conservative pages on Facebook, which reposts pictures, quotes and articles from other conservative sites espousing very similar sets of views. The same goes for liberals and MSNBC, ThinkProgress.com and any of the countless left-wing Facebook pages. The end result is that people retreat to their ideological sanctuaries. News is interpreted through only a few distorted lenses, and no one understands or cares why anyone disagrees with them. In fact, in this age of polarization, one is often encouraged to distrust whatever evidence another side brings to the table. Just look at our reaction to global warming. There is nothing political about the greenhouse effect and a rapid increase in the average global temperature is not a partisan issue. And yet, Americans seem to think it is.
In order for us not to fall into this destructive trap, we must be open to being wrong. I know how hard it is — I get caught up in my own beliefs all the time, and it happens to the best of us. But if you aren’t willing to venture beyond the safety of the confirmation bias, you won’t learn anything. You won’t be able to deal with reality and you’ll likely alienate people who disagree with you. A society of people unwilling to acknowledge each other’s legitimacy will no longer value rational thinking or civil debate — both of which are pivotal to the common good. When people do nothing but demonize each other, they forget all that they have in common, which is far more important than what they disagree about.
I don’t think students at the College have this problem now. My biggest concern is what will happen when we all get older. We have a lot to offer, but we’ll squander it if we fall prey to our biases and the media’s eagerness to indulge them. I confess that it’s hard to make the argument that you should avoid bias and misinformation when they are nearly unavoidable. To recommend specific news channels and websites would only invite accusations of bias. What I will say, however, is that one should try to be well-rounded. Read from sources and publications that express differing views and thoughtfully consider both. Be skeptical, but not to the point where you assume everyone is lying to you. And most importantly, remember that whoever disagrees with you isn’t your enemy.
Email Matt Camarda at firstname.lastname@example.org.