As Lukianoff explains: ‘If there’s any risk whatsoever that a person can get into trouble for their opinion, people don’t change their opinion, they just talk to people they agree with, and they don’t bother talking to people they disagree with. And talking with people you disagree with is precisely what people should be doing in higher education.’
‘People not disagreeing with professors’, Lukianoff continues, ‘people not talking to people they disagree with… this all leads to group polarisation. And as far as the research on group polarisation is concerned, if you surround yourself with people you agree with, you tend to become much more certain, and in some cases much more radical in your beliefs, whether conservative, liberal or neither. And you tend, therefore, to have a polarised understanding of where the other side is coming from. And that’s a big problem in the US today. We have these very tight echo chambers and sort of cartoon-like pictures of what the other side is like.
…With rigorous debate discouraged throughout higher education, and people seeking out only those they already agree with, it is unsurprising that many find it difficult to explain why what they believe to be right is right. After all, they have never had to test their beliefs. And the inability to explain why we are right ‘makes us even more emotional and hostile when anything questions our certainty’, says Lukianoff – hence the shrill, overemotional inarticulacy of so much public discourse.
Noel once said that one of the things he appreciated about commenting here is that I don’t get defensive when challenged. Well, since we’re on the topic of the benefits of open dialogue with opponents, I will grant to Christianity that I’ve always appreciated the proverb about a soft answer turning away wrath. Deflate your ego enough, and you won’t feel the need to escalate when someone initiates hostilities. We’re not making policy or influencing anything important here, we’re just passing the time; take a deep breath and relax. (Even if you prefer Machiavellian strategizing, you might consider that an even-keeled reaction could unbalance a hostile interlocutor, making them feel unsure of themselves and silly for coming on so fiercely, thus bestowing an advantage upon you.)
Of course, you may also be aware that I’ve written many posts about all the things I hate about the social web, especially as it concerns the quality of writing and thinking. The excerpt above is another complaint to add to the list, I feel. In a medium that encourages and rewards lightning-quick reactions, tweet-sized opinions and egotistical performance art above nuance and contemplation, where it’s more important to be seen holding correct opinions that have “always already” been settled, or joining in on the reinforcement of those opinions through upvoting, liking, retweeting, etc., disagreements quickly turn into hollow displays of choosing sides and shaking fists at each other, before dispersing and reforming somewhere else over some other ostensible issue.
I was already congenitally disposed toward anti-sociability, but I’m becoming ever more resolved to avoid the sorts of tribal loyalties that compromise intellectual activity. I don’t want friends, allies or fans; I want people to think with.