Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I was thinking about why I frequently read things like Christianity Today, where I almost never agree with what they have to say. I realized a couple of things. First, it’s more entertaining to read material written from a conservative perspective because it usually catches me off-guard. I know what to expect from liberals, but conservatives surprise me frequently. Second, I think I learn more about what I believe by reading articles written by people who disagree with me.

I think people, myself included, have a tendency to set up those we disagree with as straw-men. We oversimplify and misrepresent their arguments in order to knock them down. By reading and learning about the perspective of those I disagree with I gain a more nuanced view of what they believe. Then forces me to think seriously about their arguments and respond substantively. I think a lot of people in our society today, on both sides of the political spectrum, only expose themselves to the opinions of those that they agree with. It’s a mutually reinforcing system in which no one ever learns anything and people adopt increasingly extreme positions.

We’ve created a culture of political, social, and religious discourse that is undergoing its own cold war, of sorts. Because neither side ever invests serious effort in actually understanding the opposing position, each side has to “invest” in increasingly extreme ideology to maintain its uniqueness and primacy. The corollary to the increasing extremity of ideology is the simultaneous oversimplification of public discourse. It is much easier to convey extreme positions in short, simple, catchy statements. Talk radio, both liberal and conservative, is a perfect example. Talk radio hosts present a very simple, very ideological view of the world. There is little to no interest in understanding the nuance of ideas or the complexity of reality. I think the result is that we have a bankruptcy of ideas. We’re trapped in the dogma of extremist, over-simplified ideology.

I think one reason is the sheer volume of information that people are presented with today. On hand it is an incredibly opportunity to view the world from multiple perspectives and really see the complexity of our reality. On the other hand, I think the sheer volume of information is absolutely overwhelming to a lot of people. So rather than deal with information overload, they retreat to sources that reinforce their worldview. Most people don’t do very well with information that threatens their preconceived notions about how the world works.

How do we fix this? No idea.



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