I ran across an aphorism from Kevin Kelly that I rather liked:
“Learn how to learn from those you disagree with or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.”
It’s something all of us may, from time to time, think about and even try to do. It is, however, extremely difficult for most of us, I think, to make this a day-to-day practice.
Of course, there are related principles that come to mind, which might be considered prerequisites to learning from opposing viewpoints. Certainly, some empathy is required for us to consider the truth in a conflicting perspective. Listening carefully to others requires some cognitive energy. The energy is best generated by imagining oneself in another’s place. Without empathy toward the other speaker, listening itself is difficult.
But empathy, in turn, is advantaged by the Jesuit notion of the presupposition – the assumption that “those you disagree with” are acting with good will. This allows us to skip a cognitive filter — assuming that the other speaker has ill intentions in the dialogue or may be actively deceiving us. That filter stops us from listening. Instead, all we hear is our internal voice preparing our counterarguments for our next conversational turn. If we assume that the intentions of the other speaker are good-willed, then we can drop this filter.
Listening, really listening, requires effort to follow the argument. It is interesting to witness speakers practicing this art at a high level. When it comes to their turn, one often hears them say, “So I hear you saying…,” repeating the words of the other speaker, or, “let me try to paraphrase what I hear you saying…,” to determine whether they captured the intended meaning of the speaker. That act can accomplish two things: a) a signal to the other speaker that you are, indeed, attending to the conversation, and b) an act prompting clarification if a mishearing occurred. Both serve the purpose of trying to discern “the truth in what they believe.” Both also signal to the other speaker that a more specific or a more abstract presentation of their viewpoint might be more productive of our understanding.
But, unfortunately, the whole work is even more effortful than careful listening. To “learn how to learn from those you disagree with” also requires one to juxtapose one’s own truths next to the views of the speaker. Is what I’m hearing the direct opposite of what I believe; is it different but possible to integrate into my viewpoint? What might be the cause of the different viewpoint; how could I ask more about how the view was motivated? Why does the speaker believe this?
Real-time integration of new with old information may overwhelm us at the time of the dialogue. As humans, we’re not reliably that good. Here, post-dialogue reflection is often necessary. But post-dialogue reflection without an opportunity to re-engage with the other actor is inadequate. Here again, watching speakers practiced in the art of dialogue across differences, often observes, “Gee, I’d like to think more about this; this isn’t how I viewed things before…”. This is a conversational vehicle to keep the dialogue going for another round.
With another speaker who appears ready to engage, another conversation turn might say, “I see things a little differently…” then “Does this fit into your viewpoint?” followed by an expression of their own viewpoint. This is a signal that we are grappling with the content and attempting to integrate it into a synthesized understanding.
Finally, another personal attribute useful in this context is humility. Humility is required for empathy and the presupposition. Howard Baker used to say, “we have to consider the possibility that the other fella’ might be right.” This is likely the most difficult state for us to attain. If we have thought about the topic deeply over time, if we have studied the field carefully, if we have found support for our views from our network, it is difficult to imagine that all that prior work led to erroneous conclusions. This, I suspect, requires practice and never gets easy. One practice I’ve learned that experts use is exposing themselves in their day-to-day life with other viewpoints. Given the polarization of media and literature, this is easy for all of us to do; our world is organized into documentation of polar opposites. This consumption of alternative viewpoints as a practice is just another implementation of exercising the same cognitive muscles to make them stronger.
So how does all this relate to higher education? Learning from new, conflicting perspectives is the very essence of the mission of universities. Without it, nothing much happens. So it’s appropriate to continuously ask ourselves how we are nurturing our students to increase their capacities to do this.