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The best antidote to polarization is exposure

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

As has frequently been noted, Americans increasingly do not even seem to live in the same country as one another. True, there is lengthy precedent for our citizenry siloing into warring media consumption tribes, as any student of history familiar with the vicious partisan newspaper mudslinging from the election of 1800 might attest. But the same cannot be said for consumers self-segregating into warring coffee shops and dueling home improvement stores en masse, solely on account of a shopkeeper’s personal political predilections. These, it seems, are symptoms of our harrowing new normal.

In America today, chronic over-politicization of that which should not be politicized combines with the toxicity of a homogenizing cancel culture, and is further exacerbated via monopolistic leftist control over all of society’s leading institutional actors.

The result, to borrow from the prescient Allan Bloom, is the (literal) closing of the American mind. Lincoln’s magisterial Second Inaugural Address, delivered in the closing stanza of the Civil War, may have spoken of the need for “malice toward none” and “charity for all;” but today, amidst our cold second civil war, we seldom view our discursive foes through any lens other than “malice.”

The republic, as any cursory glance outside the window would indicate, has seen better days. Divided as ever, we are desperately in need of a unifying politics of national solidarity — the better to salve our internecine wounds of animosity. And it is only through this solidaristic lens — and an acute societal interest in strengthening the mutually interdependent bonds of citizenry that bond us together and help us realize our full humanity — that we might ponder how to rediscover and reapply anew the ancient art of persuasion.

Though there is a distinctly nationalist political element to the early American republic (and we would do well to resuscitate large swaths of it), our social fabric, encapsulated by Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observations, has always been understood as springing forth from what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” — those voluntary associations, rooted in family and religion, that form the thick web of intermediating institutions standing between citizen and state.

The pressing question facing America in the year 2020 is what nation we have left when every citizen’s “little platoons,” stretching across every conceivable area of everyday life, amount to self-segregation based entirely upon mutually shared political belief.

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As cancel culture runs rampant (against everyone but vicious anti-Semites, at least), our collective imperative is, to the cynic, perhaps less a proselytizing urge to substantively change hearts and minds than a need to persuade others that the Overton window of permissible public discourse is less confined than some might think. Put another way, the most important battle of all may not be persuading our fellow citizens that we are right, but that we should be heard — and not canceled — simply because we are reasonable and not crazy.

But in actuality, the ease with which conscientious citizens can descend into disillusionment at the state of our discourse may mildly overstate the depth of our current doldrums. Specifically, while ideologically driven (and sometimes overtly partisan) media has indeed never been more popular, there are some notable oases where genuine debate and engagement among competing views can be found.

As Newsweek opinion editor and the leader of our “The Debate” platform, in fact, I am personally responsible for running precisely one such oasis. Each week, I host a written (and soon to be audio, as well) debate between two people who respectfully, yet strongly, disagree on a leading issue of the day.

In presenting both sides of an important topic, my aim at Newsweek is not to harden readers’ preconceived biases, but to expose them to alternative perspectives. In so doing, two things are accomplished. First, readers may be introduced to perspectives they otherwise would never have encountered within their respective media consumption echo chambers, thus opening them up to the possibility that there are thoughtful, reasonable, and articulate advocates for viewpoints at loggerheads with their own. That is intrinsically beneficial, even if no minds are changed. But second, of course, some minds — and perhaps more than both sides’ inveterate echo chamber dwellers might anticipate — may actually be changed.

Our “The Debate” platform may be relatively rare, especially within the realm of “mainstream media,” but it is hardly unique. The promising new website Pairagraph, for example, provides — according to its mission statement — a “dualistic and dialectic mode of discourse” with the aim of helping to forestall the “erosion of serious dialogue in society.”

In February, I debated President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan at Pairagraph. Hopefully some readers were convinced, after reading the exchange, that I was correct to defend the morality of Trump’s plan. But at a bare minimum, hopefully a handful of open-minded readers at least emerged better comprehending and empathizing with the justice of Jewish national self-determination in the Holy Land.

Sheer exposure to competing viewpoints is itself helpful insofar as, via a slow and osmosis-like process, Americans come to understand how and why their countrymen might arrive at conclusions so wildly different from their own. For many, especially those hailing from the cancel culture-enforcing dominant ideology — which, across all of America’s sundry private institutions today, is the Left — there is something to be said for Louis Brandeis’s old maxim that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Leaders in America today, and especially those on the culturally hegemonic and groupthink-homogenizing Left, have an obligation to encourage fellow citizens to at least expose themselves to differing perspectives. With enough Brandeis-esque “sunlight,” the composition of our Burkean “little platoons” might, over time, come to more closely resemble the political and intellectual diversity of their broader communities — and, by extension, of the country at-large.

The long march toward restored national solidarity begins somewhere: Our metastasizing into self-siloed full-on warring tribes may well be more readily preventable than we might think, if only we’d perk up our ears and open our eyes.

Josh Hammer is Newsweek opinion editor, a syndicated columnist, and of counsel at First Liberty Institute, and a popular campus speaker.


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