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One Way to Stay Centered in a Divided World

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The eventful month of June 2020 seemed like the right time to add a new daily exercise to my mental health regimen: read an opinion piece that makes me uncomfortable.

I had noticed that in my online surfing, I was hunting for opinions with certain specific qualities. I would scan past headlines that struck me as too fawning, too reactive, too woke, or too conservative, until I found one that looked like it was “worth my time,” or “had something to say.”

It soon became clear that I was looking for the most palatable opinions, which of course are my own opinions.

Ideally, I would find my views expressed by a professional columnist with a kind of cutting wit I would like to have. When I found a piece that met these narrow standards, I would read, enjoy, and share it, then repeat the process.

None of us enter the echo chamber knowingly. We’re built to seek our own opinions, in the same way we’re built to seek high-calorie foods—both are so palatable to us because they represent safety and survival. As some evolutionary psychologists argue, our moral instincts didn’t evolve to help us to discern right from wrong, but to help us convince other humans that we’d make good additions to their clan—that we hate their enemies, share their affinities, and shake our heads at the same behaviors.

That’s why having your beliefs affirmed by others feels so good, even when the belief is devoid of moral significance: that the Packers are better than the Vikings, or that your favorite movie doesn’t deserve its bad reviews.

Enjoying this feeling doesn’t even require the belief to be true, which explains why people are generally uninterested in contradictory evidence, and why solidarity groups form around claims that the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, and that the real Paul McCartney died in a 1966 car crash.

Because existing beliefs feel so much better than ideas we don’t yet believe, we all drift naturally toward the comforts of the echo chamber. The only way to escape this fate is to consciously move against its gravity, away from the warm bath of your own opinions, and try to consume something else.

The problem, I’ve discovered, is that consuming outside opinions tends to be an unpleasant experience. When you try to consider an argument from elsewhere on the political spectrum, for example, you might feel a bubble of unpleasantness rising through your chest and throat. Maybe it’s shame, uncertainty, hatred, perplexity, or something less obvious. You might feel like you’re being accused of something, or that you’re betraying your family and friends.

When this unpleasantness arises—perhaps during paragraph three of an editorial for or against gun ownership, kneeling NFL players, mandatory facemasks, or universal basic income—the natural reflex is to shut down the mind, in one of two ways.

We either steel ourselves against the opinion, by reading it without ever reflecting on it, or we stop reading altogether, and do something more comfortable. The effect is like we’re all wearing shock collars that go off when we wander outside our own small paddock. We feel the pain of a foreign idea and hurry back to safety.

And our paddocks seem to be shrinking. In an age of endless, on-demand content, anyone—no matter how small their current paddock—can avoid the discomfort of traveling outside the fence, where a broader understanding of the world can be found.

After barely a decade of social media self-siloing, we’re seeing some awful side-effects: ever-growing divisiveness, taboos around questioning certain ideas, an increasingly accepted culture of online mob justice, and a whole lot of hate from all over the political spectrum.

One way to begin to reverse this pattern is to learn what it feels like, physically, to open the mind when it wants to close. Each day I try to find an article that evokes that exact feeling, and challenge myself to keep reading in its presence.

I’d suggest doing this gently at first. Don’t dive into ideas you’re diametrically opposed to. Find something a little to the left or right of what’s comfortable for you. Something from a different scene. An article whose headline induces a slight cringe or contraction.

As you read, practice charitable interpretation. If you have to, pretend a trusted friend gave it to you and wants to calmly discuss it afterward. When feelings come up, let them.

There’s always an initial wave of resistance—an urge to stop and say, “Yeah but…” or possibly, “Fuck this.” If you let those reflexive objections go, and keep reading, this reactivity soon peaks, and fades to a dull simmer.

Then, regardless of your ultimate verdict on the piece, you enter an interesting new territory. You find can keep reading, even while the dull simmer remains. Your defensiveness is still present, but it’s in the other room for the moment, counting to ten, and you can almost feel something grow more spacious inside you.

***

Photo by Hannah Grace

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{ 71 Comments }

Pebbles July 7, 2020 at 2:41 am

An excellent post, David. I’ve been stretching my boundaries in the past year by doing this also. It has met with a vast range of responses from long term friends and acquaintances, resulting in either, frank discussion and light bulb moments, or extreme attacks from others, and in some suprising cases, my banishment. It’s certainly split the pack nicely. If I needed a window with zero filtering into those close to me, this has been “it”. A revelation indeed!

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:30 am

The banishment trend is really disturbing — believe everything I believe or I will shun you. On one hand it seems like a convenient filter for getting the strident crazies out of your life, but on the other hand, that’s part of how this dangerous siloing happens. People can’t stand to be around people with different beliefs, and we get this extreme polarization. So I’m trying to be as compassionate as possible to the people in my life who seem caught up in ideologies.

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Christy July 8, 2020 at 4:13 am

Thank you both David and Pebbles for your comments, this is such a valid argument and one that currently runs deep with me as well. Banishment is something I am currently risking, having friends of greatly varying beliefs which I have always tolerated and never made mine…obvious. A difficult one. I still try to keep my friends regardless of the aspects of life and our beliefs that do not coincide. I don’t belong to any particular group and generally spend a lot of time alone, allowing me to not have to confront many people very often.

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Nat July 7, 2020 at 2:41 am

So true! My teenage son is my greatest teacher for that. He has very different political opinions from me, and he likes talking about them a lot. The most difficult part for me is to listen to some of the podcasts or video he sends me. As you say, it is very uncomfortable! But it is a good practice to feel bad and know that it is OK to feel bad sometimes.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:33 am

There is a major generational divide happening now, so good on you for bridging that. I hope it goes the other way too :)

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Christy July 8, 2020 at 4:16 am

Children and people from varying generations truly do show us the breath of beliefs even within a small group; some beliefs appear to me to be quite popular with certain age groups, which leads you to ponder – how did this come to be? What were they taught? What were they seeing/listening to as they were growing up? I have to say, I love talking to older people (and I am not young!) whose views are usually real eyeopeners and very realistic.

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Letícia July 7, 2020 at 3:58 am

My choice has been to remove myself from the whole stupidity. My knowing the stats of the pandemic will in no way change the outcome, me following what this or that Brazilian politician is saying will in no way influence Brazilian politics – let alone global politics. What it does change is the level of anxiety I feel. My job is to protect my sanity not change the world, specially in these times.

I have no faith in the statistics that are being put out in the middle of the hysterics of the pandemic, the one’s close to me I will hear about them – just yesterday three more at work came down with covid. I do hope they get better. I will keep to my little village in the massive city. The news that impact my life get to me – work from home has been extended for another two weeks and probably will be extended again. Restaurants are opening, which conflicts directly with the anecdotal news that nearby more people are infected. I was out and about yesterday running errands. I would have loved to have a sit down meal at a restaurant, but I thought – since this makes no sense, I’ll go home and cook.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:39 am

I think we’re probably better off minimizing the amount we engage with the insanity of the news, because as you say, we act on very little of what we hear, even if it affects us.

You could make the argument though, that another aspect of protecting one’s sanity is to keep an eye on trends and impending issues that will one day impact your sanity more directly, in the form of bad policy or fundamentalist movements. Then again, there’s a big gap between being aware and affecting the proceedings.

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Christy July 8, 2020 at 4:19 am

I agree Leticia, I also have no faith in the statistics that are being put out in the middle of the hysterics of the pandemic; so it is hard to draw a realistic conclusion about what the actual state of things is and to just what degree all of this has been exaggerated (and for what purpose…) I also try to withdraw, but still try to gather sane information.

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Rowan July 7, 2020 at 6:03 am

Thank you for the link explaining charitable interpretation. I try to practice that anyway, but it’s great seeing the idea laid out like that. And perhaps I will find a way to share it with some people who may need to have the idea explained to them.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:42 am

The fact that we are capable of charitable interpretation is one of the great redeeming qualities of the human being. It really feels against the natural gravity of our instincts sometimes, but it is often immediately rewarding and directly reduces conflict and hatred in the world.

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Vilx- July 7, 2020 at 6:43 am

“An open mind is like a fortress, with it’s gates unbarred and unguarder” – WH40K.

The biggest problem that I see is that it’s impossible to tell which way lies the truth and what are lies. Should I listen to the opinions of zealous racists and raging homophobes? Flat world and antivaccines? What about political debates which consist of nothing but speculations and subjective interpretations?

Opening your mind and going outside your comfort zone is nice, but… how do you tell which way is the right one to go? If you accept that your own beliefs are flawed, how can you find these flaws? Because there are opinions out there going in all directions. And if you cannot trust your own inner compass then – what can you trust?

This is, I think, the crux of the issues we see today. At the end of the day, there’s nothing to allow one to distinguish the truth and goodness from lies and hate.

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Vilx- July 7, 2020 at 7:50 am

I’ve come back to elaborate a bit because I think I didn’t do a good enough job on my previous post. There are two points I want to touch on.

First one – even if you go only “a little bit” outside your comfort zone, that’s still a step in some direction. It still stretches your comfort zone, moves your opinion slightly. I mean, that’s the point of the whole exercise – to move your own point of view.

But where to? You can construct a path from any opinion to any opinion, even diametrically opposing ones, composing them from nothing but tiny steps. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. It’s been done before too. Just look at how the most horrible countries in the world got there. They weren’t always like that. They got where they are one tiny step at a time.

And this leads us to the second point – bad actors. There are people out there who will happily hurt others to get what they want. It doesn’t matter how they got there, but at this point their consciences don’t bother them anymore. They have accepted that this is the right way, and the suffering of others is also deserved/unavoidable/acceptable. And they lose no sleep over it.

And if you approach these people with big smiles and open arms (and minds), they will be overjoyed to take advantage of you.

That is not so say that we should treat them like enemies or be aggressive or whatever – in short, be like them. No, I don’t think that’s quite the correct answer. The goal should be to reactivate their conscience and make them value others again. But accepting them as equals and trying to share their views does not work. I don’t know what works. But I know that you might not always recognize them in time.

So in the end – I still don’t have an answer to the fundamental question – “whom to trust?”

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Audrey July 7, 2020 at 9:17 am

I know what you mean, yet there are myriad ways to verify what is truth and what is not.

There is nothing to say that you have to take contrary opinions or outright lies / fabrications on board.

Also, when I have talked to people in person about what they think, and why, it’s fascinating to listen and observe what they say. To see how their minds work.

‘Know thine enemy’ may also be a consideration.

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Lkae July 7, 2020 at 9:20 am

I expose myself to articles, podcasts, etc of ideas different from mine, not in order to change my mind, but to better understand those whose opinions are different from mine. They rarely shake my confidence in my own beliefs.

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Bryanna July 8, 2020 at 9:01 am

This is really insightful, thank you for sharing. I totally agree on reactivating the consciousness of people who have distanced themselves from caring; I really love how you phrased it.
I think I know what you mean, in terms of expanding comfort zones. Like, that you want to make sure your opinions are based on fact and not just things you’ve heard in the echo-chamber you may or may not be in without realizing it. I have been struggling with that as of late. Are my opinions really based on the facts, or just the ideas that everyone else is repeating over and over again? When I try to venture out and find new information, how do I know if I am accidentally stepping into a new realm of other people’s unfounded opinions vs realistic interpretations of data that lead to fact-based beliefs? I can’t possibly analyze all the data for all the topics I am interested in and believe it’s important to be aware of. I rely heavily on the aggregate of varying voices sharing their knowledge. I have to trust that after learning about dozens of different people’s views that I have some semblance of a balanced opinion, but that might not always be the case. And for that I don’t know what to do because if I researched everything as much as I wish I could in order to be fully informed, I would be putting myself through a graduate thesis for at least 8 huge social and global issues, needing to learn the terminology and everything along the way. It’s too much for one person alone!

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:47 am

Yes, the work of open-mindedness has to be done acknowledging the presence of bad actors, and the challenge of discerning what’s true and what’s not. Determining what to believe isn’t easy, but it’s not at all true that there’s no way to figure it out. That’s what conversation, logic, science, and contemplation are for. You’re much more likely to come closer to the truth if you make a point of considering unfamiliar/unpleasant viewpoints too, instead of only the comforting ones.

As for bad actors taking advantage of people, it seems to me that it’s FAR easier for a bad actor to take advantage of strident, dogma-driven people who do not make a point of questioning their beliefs.

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Christy July 8, 2020 at 4:50 am

It is hard to find anything that you can have 100% faith in, but by following various leads, I am finding more sites whose content seems to verify each other’s findings, that overlap and send me then into various more obscure avenues which are definitely related; I stay away completely from mainstream information which I do believe is a distorted and piloted presentation of everything going on. I see too much about how “facts” are presented, and it is disturbing. I am reading more than I would like to on the current situation and all the (often unsavory) ramifications, trying to draw educated opinions; it does take a lot of reading and seeing what is out there, but more and more I find avenues that give me a broader information, often more in-depth that I can understand, but, I get there. Worth looking at medical information as this is not really covered in any “news”. It is truly a job to try and find “real” investigation, real information that does not serve someone’s interest. Keep delving, you might feel better in the end. An Open Mind allows me to actually reinforce my (hopefully educated and informed) beliefs by seeing what others consider their truths and why. Often when you see the shallowness of some people’s arguments then light bulbs start to go on and you start to decipher more readily what has more truth to it. I don’t believe there are ever any absolute truths and right now especially, everything is in flux all over the world. I have lived extensively in 4 countries and for a long time have been a “foreigner” in every country that I live in, also giving me more interesting perspectives.

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Fred July 7, 2020 at 6:52 am

Absolutely outstanding article. I am avid student of Ev Psy and feel like it explains almost all modern behavior. I’ve never made this connection though which makes total sense. While every morning I ask Alexa to give me a briefing from both cnn and Fox News to help me avoid confirmation bias, your suggestion in your article is something I’ll try. Your point about sitting with the emotion for a bit is great as well. Always enjoy your posts
Fred

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:51 am

Thanks Fred. If you have not explored Jonathan Haidt’s work on political belief I think you would appreciate it.

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Carl Klutzke July 7, 2020 at 7:33 am

I’ve been reading The Flip Side for exactly this reason. Each weekday they select an issue and present selected opinions about it from both conservatives and liberals (and sometimes libertarians). It’s very US-centric, so maybe not relevant to everyone. https://www.theflipside.io/

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:51 am

That sounds great, I will check this out.

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Patricia Reckrey July 7, 2020 at 7:40 am

In the real world this kind of practice pays off–if we allow difference in belief or opinion in what we read, we are more likely to enjoy a neighbor who thinks differently than ourself.
It makes the world we live in run more smoothly. Not everything need be topic for debate.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 9:53 am

And just imagine the extreme opposite — if people could not be friends/neighbors unless their beliefs were identical. Clearly that’s one of the worst possible worlds humans could make, and we appear to be moving that way.

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Lori July 7, 2020 at 8:03 am

Great article. I spent most of my career in market reseach before retiring. What you describe is called confirmation bias, and we worked hard to guard against it when gathering and interpreting data. This is how Wikipedia defines it: Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior personal beliefs or values.

Keep writing!!
Lori

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 10:10 am

Yup, that’s the principle at work here. The modern internet really exploits it too, with personalized content recommendations. It shows each person a different world, tailoring it for maximum engagement and ad revenue, and confirmation bias drives it, because that’s a major reason we click on anything, which is how they know what we want to hear.

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Melinda Rusaw July 7, 2020 at 8:16 am

Thanks again for putting into clear words a good message. I’m in this process of learning right now. I’ve always had to straddle chasms. I “belong” to a Christian Bible study as well as a liberal book club. See, isn’t that a quick jolt to our sensitivities? I hope we who feel that internal bias exercise your practice of brain cleaning.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 10:11 am

By having feet in multiple pools you are making the world a better place :)

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Audrey July 7, 2020 at 9:10 am

Great idea, if only to get your heart racing!

Also, for a moment I read ‘social media self-siloing’ as ‘social media self-soiling.’

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 10:11 am

Hahaha it really is a kind of self-soiling

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Alexander Kidder July 7, 2020 at 9:24 am

David – interesting piece. I’ve been doing this for a while. I also follow twitter accounts from all over the spectrum (literally antifa AND alt-right). I’m often surprised how reasonable the arguments are when taken out of any greater context. We want less brutal police! We want people to like our country and our people! I don’t really feel discomfort when I read these anymore, but I have found my views moving closer to the dreaded moderate center, one of the most uncomfortable places to be as an American. Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 10:14 am

It’s encouraging that following such a variety has reduced the idea-discomfort effect. I follow a wide swath, but not all the way to antifa and alt-right because they make me too mad, but maybe that’s a good thing to confront.

This may seem optimistic, but I think we might just see a centrist movement ascending in the coming years. The vacuum there is increasingly obvious.

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Joe Goldberg July 7, 2020 at 9:38 am

I’d love to see your list of articles, do you post them anywhere?

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David Cain July 11, 2020 at 3:21 pm

Hi Joe. Sorry, I didn’t see this till now. The “Archives” link in the main nav menu will give you a list.

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Sharon Hanna July 7, 2020 at 9:56 am

Great, David. I’ll send you an article on astrology! ;-)

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 10:15 am

Haha! I think I have opened as much as I can to astrology. I have no ill-will about it, and I have explored it a fair bit, but I just do not believe it.

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woollyprimate July 11, 2020 at 2:30 pm

I do not believe in astrology, either, but I did have an interesting experience where someone who had just known me for a short time said to me, “Are you a Scorpio by any chance?” THAT was freaky. Didn’t cause me to believe it, but I thought it was interesting.

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Cultivating More Happiness July 7, 2020 at 10:31 am

Very thought-provoking post. At my first silent meditation retreat, the teacher talked about ‘softening our sense of self’ and that’s a quote that has really stayed with me over the years. This is a great suggested practice – to take in other opinions and notice our physiologic response and observe how attached we can sometimes be to our views. Thanks for your honesty and insight!

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David Cain July 8, 2020 at 11:09 am

Softening is a great word for it, and my meditation experience helps with this a LOT. It’s a matter of observing the physiologic response, rather than reacting to it, which definitely takes some practice

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Lorrie Beauchamp July 7, 2020 at 10:33 am

Balance. That’s exactly what I was thinking as I was reading your valuable insight. (Always enjoy your insights, by the way, because they usually reflect what I’ve been pondering on any given day – ha!) The need for balance is eternal. If I find myself leaning too far in any direction, it’s a call to pull back, re-frame, maintain balance. BUT I think we should be keenly aware of what we consume, whether it’s junk food or junk opinions. It’s easy to get swept up in someone’s clever rhetoric, which is why, I suspect, these divisions are so readily embraced. As you so astutely point out, it’s essential to maintain balance by venturing forth; but it’s equally important to maintain a certain selectivity in what we consume. You are what you consume; garbage in, garbage out.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 1:35 pm

That makes sense. I don’t advocate consuming garbage, but determining what is and isn’t garbage can be a non-trivial task. There are definitely views I hold now that I once thought were garbage. The key to balance as far as I can see is to have a diverse diet of input, and you don’t have to venture into extremist views to get that diversity.

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Frank Clements July 7, 2020 at 11:31 am

I disagree that one should move slowly into the chilly waters of an opposing opinion. Hear the worst, take the plunge and get right into it. This is a courageous way to learn to swim among the sharks and still keep them at bay.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 1:40 pm

I can see the benefit in that, for sure. My worry is that charitable interpretation would be an extremely difficult skill to learn if you started with opinions you despise.

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Robin July 7, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Hi David,

Fantastic idea! Sadly, I find myself greatly upset even by the opinions I agree with. So much so that I’m even considering cancelling all of my news emails and unfollowing them on Facebook, except that would leave me totally uninformed which is not a good idea at any time but especially now. I don’t know how to balance getting just enough news with maintaining my emotional health. I have several friends in the same boat. Any words of wisdom that you have on this would be welcome.

Robin

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 1:54 pm

That’s understandable. We are so sensitive, that even just reading a single word can trigger emotional responses (e.g. baby, taxes, war, nature). My thought is that you can slowly begin strengthening your openness to emotional experience, just by noticing and seeing if you can allow small emotional pangs that happen throughout the day. You don’t even need news to trigger it, you can just “check in” right now, notice what obvious emotional sensations are in the body, and see if you can allow them to come and go for a few seconds. This is a form of mindfulness practice, and the more you do it, the less perturbed you will be by them.

About getting “enough” news to be informed… news is only one kind of meaningful information. There are forms of journalism that don’t necessarily take the form of news reports — feature articles, essays, documentaries. News tends to be reactive, urgent, not very deep information-wise, and designed to agitate.

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Robin July 7, 2020 at 7:42 pm

Thank you David.

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Madam truefire July 7, 2020 at 2:05 pm

David, as usual, spot on! online mob justice. oh how I adore your way of saying things. I totally agree. During this covid hiccup, I have gone through several levels of observance. At first I was sort of addicted to the mainline press youtubes. Then I meandered into the “other folks”, and then drilled deep into alternate press. Finally, I threw my hands up and went out and took a walk and conversed with the squirrels and deer. It felt suddenly freeing. We are meandering through what ifs, how tos, and will whoever really knows, please show up? So I write about what I know and feel and smile at the rest.
Your blog is wonderful and incisive and hey……kind. What a concept: kind.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 4:23 pm

The squirrels and deer are important voices in this strange time

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Aaron July 7, 2020 at 3:43 pm

Well I think I found the one thing I disagree with today: this post haha. I’m having a hard time summarizing my feelings concisely, but some reasons why I disagree:

1. I grew up in a Conservative household (Rush Limbaugh on the radio, etc.) and I am now fairly far to the left of the American political spectrum. This may be anecdotal, but between text conversations with relatives and Conservatives getting retweeted onto my Twitter feed, I don’t find it challenging to expose myself to ideas from the other side. I’m aware of how this sounds, but I promise that I am being earnest: what I do find is a lack of quality when I engage with the other side, both with the relatives but also (especially) with U.S. right wing media. The purpose of Fox News, The Daily Caller, and others like them is not to improve the discourse and engage in thought leadership. They are reactionary, stokes fear, etc. What do I gain by intentionally engaging with that content? I don’t see the upside.

2. Major publications set the terms of acceptable dialogue all the time, and I think that it’s fine that people do that with their own own media consumption habits as well. To give an extreme example, the New York Times would not publish an op-ed on why pedophilia is good, nor should they. They’re allowed to use their discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable dialogue. Similarly, in my own life, I am uninterested in engaging in yet another argument on whether or not climate change is real. If a writer, or even some random person, engages in climate change denialism on Twitter and I respond telling them they’re wrong or dumb or make a flippant comment, it’s not that I can’t handle their “taboo ideas” or that “cancel culture” is coming for them. Twitter is democratized and bi-directional in a way that newspapers and magazines were not. If someone, or many someones, show up and criticize you, that’s the price of admission for being on a bi-directional platform. I do have some concerns about “cancel culture”, but mostly for regular people with regular jobs that get dragged on the internet. However, if you’re an “elite” type thinker (writers with bylines at major publications, celebrities, etc.), it’s amazing how many of these “cancelled” thinkers with “taboo ideas” have massive platforms, access to op-ed pages at major newspapers, hold office, etc. In my view, it’s just that they don’t like the criticism, and they should say that instead of trying to pivot the conversation to make it adjacent to the actual issue.

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David Cain July 7, 2020 at 4:21 pm

Hi Aaron. I’m not sure how much we really disagree. This post doesn’t advocate trying to “see the light” in every conceivable idea, it’s to reduce the echo chamber effect in your life and society as a whole. You can do that by branching out even the slightest amount from your comfort zone, which was suggested pretty explicitly in the post.

I wouldn’t expect to find a single useful idea coming out of Tucker Carlson’s or Rush Limbaugh’s mouth, but it’s a little strawmannish to reduce the right half of the political spectrum to voices like that.

re: cancel culture and “elite” thinkers… I think there’s an important distinction to be made between actual criticism of an idea and an attempt by an unaccountable mob to destroy someone’s career/life. People with money or platforms are not insulated from losing their livelihoods just because five thousand k-pop fans decide they don’t like one of their tweets. It’s not a big deal until it happens to you.

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Marissa July 9, 2020 at 9:24 am

In your comment, you called the right “reactionary”. It used to be viewed like that I guess, some time in the past. It was commonplace, mainstream. To lean in the opposite direction would seem like being a rebel, a person who challenges the sysmem, very appealing to young people. Since you shared that you grew up in the conservative family, that’s what probably happened in your case.
Now it’s all flipped: the LEFT has now become mainstream, dogmatic, with a very strict set of rules upon which one must abide– “you can’t say this or that, or else you’ll be accused of a hate crime” type of thing. Right wing commentators are having their Youtube channels cancelled left and right, get banned from social media, etc. Reminds me of the ol book burning.
I see the young people from my daughter’s generation, genZ, are more and more leaning towards the right because they see the LEFT is too constricting, imposing too many rules, almost a church like institution. To be conservative these days IS to be a rebel, IS to be different, IS seen as counter culture.
I find it very interesting what happens in society when the pendulum swings too far in any direction, be it left or right. Go to far in any one direction, and the push back in inevitable.

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Gonzalo July 7, 2020 at 8:33 pm

I am a Mexican follower with a poor education, so my English is not good. Sorry. I really enjoy your texts. I particularly liked this one, because it deals with what I’ve been feeling lately. Thank you very much for addressing this topic. (And sorry for my bad english, again.)

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David Cain July 8, 2020 at 11:11 am

Thanks Gonzalo. (Your English in this comment is perfect by the way.)

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Aaron July 8, 2020 at 12:49 pm

David, that’s a fair response to my comment above. I think I did a poor job representing my thoughts on some of the finer nuances of the cancel culture debate. This piece from one of my favorite writers does a much better job of making my point: https://newrepublic.com/article/158346/willful-blindness-reactionary-liberalism. You may not agree with it, so perhaps it can be your mind-stretching piece for the day.

It was also not entirely fair to focus just on a few examples from the right. However, I promise my observation was made in good faith and that I do genuinely struggle with finding quality thinkers and writers on the right and would be interested in new sources if others have them. I should also mention that I do find myself stretched from the left as well. I listened to a podcast where the guest was Mariame Kaba recently, who is a prison abolitionist (she wants to abolish the prison/carceral system altogether). Absolutely fascinating stuff.

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David Cain July 8, 2020 at 1:14 pm

Definitely. I sense your good faith! This will be my read for tomorrow, thanks Aaron.

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David Cain July 9, 2020 at 10:34 am

Thanks for this piece. It was well-written, made some good defenses of identity politics, and pointed out a lot of hypocrisy among certain liberal critics. I will follow Osita.

On a meta-level I think it helped illuminate a major issue behind the entire conversation. We really are talking past each other. The piece is a supposed to be a rebuttal to criticisms identity politics is receiving from mainstream liberals, but it doesn’t really do that. It explains how identity politics is necessary and useful, and how liberals are often hypocritical. But the criticisms being made of ID politics right now are all about its obvious excesses — the religious inquisition it often becomes, the bad faith tactics, the intolerance to viewpoint diversity even within the groups the movement is defending. (Just look at how non-party-line trans people are treated.) There is a single paragraph in this 5,000 word document that acknowledges what is actually being criticized — essentially, “Sure there are excesses and overreach, but there always are, and it’s not really a big deal.”

I think this happens again and again on both sides. We attack the worst parts of the opposing group’s culture, and defend the best parts of our own, and pretend (or mistakenly believe) that there’s nothing else to it.

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Ricardo July 9, 2020 at 7:32 am

Indeed! However, wouldn’t it be just the tip of the iceberg? I mean, isn’t that intolerance for the ‘other’s way of seeing the world just one example of how this globalized neoliberalist culture is shaping the world? Our individual vehicles are our way, our rooms and one-bedroom apartments, our individual working space, and our earphones. All of our way of living shaped to avoid the ‘other’ interference in the way we prefer the world to be. We actually grew up to prefer not to be part of a family’s business and change group of friends as our personality changed over life.

By doing that, each day we fight not only to not listen to opposite opinions, different musical tastes, and to accept different levels of tidiness in a space. We also avoid sharing with, feeling for, and connecting with the ‘other’. Exactly as you pointed, our natural tendency to our comfort zone is pushing us to be more individualistic. I’d say also less happy.

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David Cain July 9, 2020 at 9:36 am

Yes, probably. It has maybe never been easier to avoid having to even consider opinions outside our own, which exacerbates the kind of modern-life isolation and disconnectedness that was already a problem long before social media came around.

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Vanessa July 9, 2020 at 10:44 am

Thanks again for some thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, David. You don’t mention the Black Lives Matter movement but I’m going to assume that’s the subtext of “eventful” in the first sentence.

This movement has shone a bright spotlight on the ‘echo chamber’ division of our communities that you write about, a division we would be better off without, but is maintained by the mainstream media.

Avoiding the big media outlets and going small scale can reduce the echo chamber effect I think. Viewing more broadly across the spectrum but individuals rather than corporations is a good start, something I’ve begun recently, only because of the rise of the BLM movement.

Doing just that the other day, I was lucky to find an IG video by Holiday Phillips, who proposes using empathy to overcome barriers, listening with compassion to understand others, even “racists who wear their hearts on their sleeves”. Like ‘charitable interpretation’, it’s a personal approach to breaking down systemic divisions. Trying to understand, as if in a face-to-face conversation, how we came to be so divided.

I’m diverting my attention toward people and away from the mainstream media where BLM is framed as a ‘difference of opinion’, or a left vs right political issue, instead of the human rights issue that it is. It’s a matter of human understanding, a fact overshadowed by this profit-motivated strategy to stoke division.

There’s a lot about division and understanding in these words by James Baldwin:
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.”

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David Cain July 11, 2020 at 3:14 pm

Empathy is part of what’s been lost, for sure, in mainstream internet-based exchanges. We don’t see each other’s eyes anymore.

The echo chamber is a danger in small-scale outlets too, maybe even moreso, because with a more niche audience, they don’t have to weigh differing perspectives that appeal to a larger base.

Agreed that BLM and other issues shouldn’t be interpreted as a right vs left issue. It is actually dozens of issues, and differences of opinion are natural, but you have to be fairly removed from those individual issues to see it as a red vs blue thing.

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Jim July 9, 2020 at 2:52 pm

Hi David, an excellent and thought provoking post as usual. I think that what is interesting about our tendency to read within our comfort zone, to socialize with people of like minds and to avoid those with differing views to our own is why this is so. I believe humans have evolved to be tribal. There was an obvious evolutionary advantage in belonging to a tribe. It was safer for the individual to belong. To be excluded from the group was a disaster. When families grouped into a tribe, there was pressure to be alike and to follow the thinking and actions of the tribe. Anyone outside the tribe was regarded with suspicion and as a possible enemy. These tendencies have remained with us and, I think, account for our attitudes to different ideas and to different tribes. Hence all human beings tend to be tribal and therefore racist. I think we have to acknowledge this if we want to treat those who are different from us fairly and with equality. One of the purposes of the legal system in a civilized society is to ensure all groups are treated equally. Thanks again for post.

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David Cain July 11, 2020 at 3:15 pm

I do think evolutionary tribe politics is the foundation of almost all of our political problems. I can’t recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind for a dissection of the psychology behind it.

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Doug July 9, 2020 at 5:43 pm

Seek quality writers with opposing views. Reading opinions contrary to your biases, but which are poorly argued, only reinforces your beliefs and doesn’t expand your world view.

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David Cain July 11, 2020 at 3:16 pm

Good point. Although to play devil’s advocate, sometimes really good writers are so effective at rhetoric that they can fool you into a believing a bad argument, whereas a weaker writer can’t.

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Jacqueline Jannotta July 10, 2020 at 6:58 pm

Thanks for this timely and challenging post. I agree with you in principle, but after so many head-butting conversations with family & childhood friends in trying to understand and empathize with opposing (far right) views, I find it draining. I am however reacquainting myself with more reasoned “opposing” ideas, such as those being expressed by the Lincoln Project.

Curiously, I just published a blogpost about this very thing — about pulling ourselves out of the familiar (BecomingBetterPeople.us, “Embrace the Unknown”). But I went in the direction of “the unknown unknowns” as where to focus. I feel if we stay in the pool of familiar ideas (even if they come from those outside our “tribe”) we will never develop the potential of our vast human creativity. But I do think there is something fundamentally powerful about going to the uncomfortable opposition, like your post suggests. In a way it kind of forces one foot to the diametric opposite. And when two feet are so far apart, the only way to keep your balance is to reach upward (assuming you don’t fall!). So perhaps it’s a way to arrive at new, more elevated ideas.

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David Cain July 11, 2020 at 3:19 pm

Engaging with your political opposites is draining, definitely. I think we can make a lot of progress just moving laterally from where we are, until we can create enough of a parallax effect that we can see the problems around an issue without tying it to one particular perspective.

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Aron July 13, 2020 at 1:18 pm

I usually recognize myself in what you write but not this time. I love reading things that contradict my existing views, at least so long as they are well argued. It seems like an unusual personality trait – not least in these times of intense tribalism and polarization – but it does exist. Getting a thrill out of testing arguments and revising one’s views to fit the evidence.

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Smith Mitchell July 17, 2020 at 11:00 am

It’s written so accurately and so amazingly. While reading your article, I have already rethought a lot. Thank you friend. This is very valuable!

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Mark G July 19, 2020 at 7:58 am

David,

This was timely. Yesterday on a walk I was listening to a podcast and I almost hit stop and found something else because I thought they were full of it. But I kept going and while I still disagreed with many of their points, it also required me to re-examine my own beliefs on some topics which was rewarding in itself even if they didn’t change. Covid has really forced me into some places of thought that have not been comfortable but I also feel like I have grown a lot the last 4 months even if I haven’t done much. Maybe it is all the walking. I try to get in at least an hour a day; yesterday was 2.5 hours. Walking = thinking for me. I have also pushed myself to read stories I never would have 10 years ago and while many viewpoints I still shake my head at, I will admit I have changed course in some areas, maybe not dramatically but noticably.

Thanks for your great blog. Has been a bastion of good reads for several years now.

Mark

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David Cain July 19, 2020 at 7:08 pm

That’s great. Deciding to keep going past that “nope point” opens up a whole new world. Already I feel much less partisan on many issues, and less angry at my fellow human beings.

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agrish August 13, 2020 at 9:12 am

Over the past year I’ve noticed that when I watch the news, my emotions eat me too much.

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