One of the prevailing themes of the last decade has been the rise of social and political polarization. From the chambers of Congress on through your Thanksgiving dinner tables, it’s increasingly difficult for both sides of the political divide to find common ground, even on seemingly trivial matters.
It isn’t just me saying this, either: Academic researchers spend hours trying to find the roots of our fractiousness, prominent writers ask the question in the titles of their books, social media platforms intentionally sequester users into their own filter bubbles, and surveys time and again reinforce just how divided we are.
On some level, everyone is guilty of falling into their own partisan camp and savoring the comfort of like-minded peers. But there are benefits to occasionally venturing outside one’s echo chamber to, at the very least, dispel myths, rumors, and misconceptions that might color the ways we perceive others.
Curiosity can be endearing
I’ll begin by hedging a bit: Sometimes appealing to those with whom you disagree isn’t worth it. For starters, feel free to ignore anyone who denies the reality of the pandemic, or who thinks the 2020 presidential election was rigged due to claims of rampant, unsubstantiated fraud. Anyone you approach needs to at least believe in some semblance of objective reality, though that’s an increasingly big ask in this era of misinformation run amok.
But if you find yourself with an opportunity to engage with a friend or family member who won’t immediately bombard you with conspiracy theories, your curiosity can often form an olive branch.
Todd Kashdan of George Mason University, who authored a study about the links between curiosity and strong relationships, said in 2017:
When you show curiosity and you ask questions, and find out something interesting about another person, people disclose more, share more, and they return the favor, asking questions of you. It sets up a spiral of give and take, which fosters intimacy.
If you have an interest in dispelling a friend’s inaccurate depictions of the ways you think, then you can probably win them over by being genuinely curious about the ways they think.
You might find you have more in common than you think
On actual, day-to-day issues, many Americans aren’t that far apart. And much of the division that defines us has been intentionally stoked by politics and broadcast news networks—the latter of which have an economic incentive to inflame tension.
You’d probably be hard-pressed to find working class conservative voters who think the shareholders of health insurance companies deserve to rake in profits while scores of Americans drown in medical debt. Similarly, everyone likely delights in skewering the staggeringly expensive cost of higher education, especially as we all struggle to pay off our college debt.
Even on more hot-button issues, Americans across the political divide seem to find more in common once you remove partisan-branding. One poll conducted by Politico in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election found that a host of seemingly implacable issues can draw broad bi-partisan support.
The right to clean air and water, for example, was considered important by 93 percent of those surveyed; protection of personal data, by 93 percent; the right to a quality education, by 92 percent; racial equality, by 92 percent; affordable health care, by 89 percent; and the right to a job, by 85 percent.
Of course, this kind of hopeful thinking has its limits, but it can be a good reference for when you enter into a discussion that could become contentious.
You’ll be better informed
We have lots of preconceived notions of how people on the other side think, and a lot of them are misguided. Notions of mainstream Democrat politicians wanting to usher in totalitarianism akin to Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela or Fidel Castro’s Cuba fall into this camp—and you can see how these myths are perpetuated by cable news. A good way of testing your own understanding of an issue, whether it’s something like abortion or mass-incarceration, is to be able to explain the other side of the debate. If you’re an advocate of criminal justice reform, for example, it’d be good for you to know what colors someone else’s aversion to abolishing cash bail.
As the author and startup investor Ben Casnocha writes:
I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.
Clearly, venturing outside of your echo chamber has its benefits, even if you only do it for a little while.