It would hardly be controversial to say that 2016 was one of the most tumultuous and politically contentious years in recent times. Particularly for those on the left, who were unprepared for the Brexit vote and U.S. election result, it was a wake-up call to the fact that we’d been living in an ideological bubble. This realisation, sadly has not led to sensible debate or thoughtful introspection, to the detriment of the left, but playground name-calling, dismissiveness and tribalistic attitudes.
Many of us would agree that part of university should be about being exposed to alternative intellectual perspectives, yet few of us in practice are willing to put our political views on the line. And just as a monoculture of crops threatens to be wiped out by disease, so too is an unchallenged culture of thought on campus life problematic for us all – addressing this will be essential if we’re to have healthy campus debates where conservative students are not afraid to voice their opinions.
To rectify this, there are many things we can do to better get in touch with the political opposition. One of the first and easiest actions we can take with someone with whom we fundamentally disagree is to break the kneejerk reaction of labelling them. Aside from the know-it-all dismissiveness of calling someone a ‘Brexiteer’, ‘Remoaner,’ ‘alt-right’, ‘socialist’, and so on, it obstructs meaningful discussion and reduces them to a list of clichés. If we’re serious about understanding the viewpoints of people we disagree with, understanding how they think is essential.
Reading content you disagree with is a really effective way of doing this. Not only is it a quick way to reevaluate your own political beliefs, (you’ll never feel more strongly in your convictions until you read the exact opposite of what you believe is right) it directs us to our political blind-spots, as there are many ideas that remain unchallenged at the periphery of our thinking; misconceptions that we have from well-meaning but inaccurate sources, or knowledge gaps that remain unchallenged by the ‘in-group.’
Moreover, if you sincerely want to change someone’s mind, having an open, truth-seeking dialogue is far more disarming than bashing them over the head with the ‘correct’ answers. In general, people are very resistant to belief-change, and if you go straight into arguing your position, you will both dig your heels in deeper. When you give people a chance to explain themselves, sincerely, we uncover unexpected middle ground; maybe both people believe in the same ultimate societal goals but just believe in different routes to getting there. Techniques such as Socratic questioning can be useful in allowing the other person to consider their own stance, as well as helping you gain valuable insight into how they think.
I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary to abandon all your beliefs and like-minded friends and go live with your political opponent, just that in overcoming the left-wing ‘echo-chamber,’ exposing ourselves to uncomfortable ideas is necessary. Fear and resentment is what results when we ignore the political other. It is only by inter-mixing and debating can we hope to stop the gap between the left and right growing even further, and perhaps even make ourselves stronger by having such debates.