Who Do You Talk To?

Birds of a feather and all that.  We tend to cluster around people like ourselves, don’t we?  This is more than just a social quirk, though. It seems to be a basic requirement of culture wars: All of us spend more time talking to people who tend to agree with us.  We are made more confident that all right-thinking folks agree.  When it comes to academics and intellectual life, this basic truism might have devastating consequences.  But is it true?  Do you ever/often/sometimes/always talk with people with whom you have fundamental culture-war disagreements?

I respect your right to disagree!

I respect your right to disagree!

Academics have a well-earned reputation for ivory-tower insularity. For the past century or so, as I found in the research for my new book, conservative critics have blasted academics time and time again not only for being biased, but for being unaware of life outside of their cloisters.

Renowned historian Gordon Wood, for instance, took to the pages of the conservative Weekly Standard recently to accuse his colleagues of a failure to communicate. The academic echo chamber had become stifling. As Wood put it,

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood’s charges elicited a flurry of outraged responses, and, for the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that they struck me as a strangely curmudgeonly diatribe from such a prominent personage. Our personal politics aside, however, more scholarly inquiries have backed up Wood’s charge that too many academics are out of touch with reality.

In her study of elite academics, for example, Elaine Howard Ecklund found them to be jaw-droppingly ignorant of general trends in American religion. Many professors had no idea even of the vital religious practices going on at their own elite universities.

And, as Neil Gross argued in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?, the professoriate tends to perpetuate its own leftist biases. Not by scheming cadres of devious commie professors, but simply by creating an atmosphere that tends to attract like-minded left-leaning people.

If it is true that elite social scientists are really skewed toward a particular political perspective, and if it is true that many academics are woefully ignorant about the very social realities they purport to study, it must shake our confidence in any “expert” testimony. And, when that’s the case, the reassuring bromides of our close culture-war allies can seem all the more convincing.

To my mind, the only remedy is for each of us to find out more about people different from us. To talk with people with whom we disagree.

Of course, for blog-readers, I guess this is preaching to the choir. Bloggers tend to consume all sorts of other blogs. Creationists might read the Sensuous Curmudgeon. Scientists might read the BioLogos Forum and Around the World with Ken Ham. Conservative Christians read Jerry Coyne, and Professor Coyne might read Agellius’s Blog.

Do any of us do this in real life, though? Does anyone have regular conversations about culture-war issues in which we share fundamental disagreements? We all have an uncle, mother, or neighbor who might differ from us on these issues, but we often politely avoid such impolite topics.

Or is that just me? Do YOU talk to lots of types of people with whom you disagree?

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7 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  June 8, 2015

    You’re right on the money: I do read blogs with a diversity of viewpoints, but I avoid discussing controversial religious and political issues with family, friends and co-workers with whom I disagree, for the sake of preserving friendly relations. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to hear their viewpoints, it’s just that based on past experience, it’s hard to discuss such things without the discussion getting heated. Which, of course, grows out of the wide divergence of our underlying premises.

    However, while online discussions may not be as good as face-to-face interaction, I must say that my blog reading and discussions have helped me to modify and moderate my political viewpoints somewhat. That might be largely due to my growing older and more mature, but a lot of it also is realizing that people on the other side really are as sincere and intelligent and nice as anyone else.

    Some of that, I think, is also due to the blog format itself: In person I might not be able to help turning red in the face and blurting out some sharp retort to a perceived insult or condescending remark. Whereas on a blog, since we’re not face-to-face, we have time to read and reflect and cool down before responding to each other.

    Reply
  2. I really struggle talking to people who can do little more than lob opinions. I am much more engaged in a discussion when I have something important to learn that is based in logic and reason. In a factual discussion, I love being presented with new lines of evidence (not anecdotes, even though stories are important and produce wonderful conversations) that force me to rethink my arguments. Scientists with little public communication experience that attempt to communicate with nonscientists are notorious for beginning their claims with the two problematic words, “I believe…” Lacking in conversations with lay persons is the approach that includes: here is what we know, and here is how we know it. In science, we know things, not because we have faith in each other, in scientific theories and laws, or in the scientific process. Instead, even though it is imperfect, we trust each other’s integrity and dispassionate approach to our results, we trust in peer review, and we trust in the scientific methods that have produced and continue to produce our ever-growing scientific knowledge. I’ll be blogging about this in the next couple of weeks.

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  3. I enjoy discussions with people of different viewpoints, although I choose my discussion partners very carefully. I find that many people are less interested in having a two-way conversation and I can easily get frustrated with such people… especially if they are touching on a sensitive topic, such as my civil rights or my very worth and dignity as a person.

    However, I’ve developed friendships both offline and on with missionaries, avid Republicans, pro-lifers on one side, and anti-theists on the other, as well as plenty of people who fall in the middle of the spectrum. Obviously, sometimes we avoid touchy topics in order to preserve the peace. But other times, we enjoy hashing out some of our differences. My opinion has changed multiple times, and I have been told multiple times that I contributed to their change of opinion as well. I think this is healthy. I dislike that many of my college friends seem to exist in very insular social spheres. That is to say, they are welcome to do so if that is their choice. But I feel strange when I hear their opinions on many things and think “wow, they’ve clearly never met/listened to anyone with that viewpoint before.” Needless to say, I play devil’s advocate a lot.

    At any rate, there are plenty of people I will NOT engage with, because I know they have no interest in being respectful or listening (or else they simply don’t know how to be respectful because they do not realize how offensive they are). But for those who DO know how to interact politely, I very much enjoy conversing and even debating on different sides of the “culture wars”. Hell, I was raised to be a culture warrior. That was my purpose. I have revolted and my intention is to be a culture peace-maker. That is my act of defiance.

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  4. I have engaged people with whom I disagree in forums all the time. Also, my own family disagrees with me on cultural issues. It’s arduous. It seems I inevitably end up trying to have a conversation with a troll. Or, someone who lectures about my ignorance while trying to prove a point. Still, I’m in the game, because I want my views to be challenged. It’s a good way to learn new things.

    Reply
  5. Agellius

     /  June 8, 2015

    I just noticed something interesting in the “tag cloud”: There is a tag called “Conservatism” (one of the larger items in the cloud in fact) but none called “Liberalism”. What are we to make of that? Is it that liberalism is assumed to be normal and nothing worth noting?
    : )

    Reply
    • That’s my fault. It’s a relic of an earlier incarnation of the blog, when I focused on getting an “outsider’s” perspective on American conservatism. These days, I’m more interested in the back-and-forth, but for several years the explicit focus was on conservatism.

      Reply
  6. I just disagree with everyone, especially if they agree with me. 😀 That’s an exaggeration, but largely true. I am uncomfortable with the slackness of consensus — it can come too easily — so I start looking for the BS, blind spots, and unexamined assumptions. The lack of concern people tend to have over a high level of apparent agreement often seems irresponsible and even dangerous to me. Absent a dialectic are you really thinking and talking? I will argue with myself too if I have to.

    Challenging reading and conversations with people I don’t feel I understand is preferred, but this is mostly going to be people but whose perspective has something intuitively valid about it, even if their labels and identities are alien or seemingly antithetical to those I might be more comfortable with. People coming from a place of deep and willful ignorance, toxic ideology, or simple fear are much less attractive, but when there is sufficient candor and honesty — a real desire to understand and be understood — even pain and anger coloring a conversation can be a “good thing” to take in, which of course is all but impossible in more formal and impersonal contexts.

    Reply

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