It’s nice to preach to the choir. It seems that all the world’s problems are solved when we talk with like minded people. In reality the practice can be damaging and dangerous, as was found by Professor Cass R. Sunstein of the University of Chicago.
He found that when deliberations and group discussions take place among “ideologically homogeneous” individuals the tendency is for the members of the group to become “more radicalized and to adopt positions more extreme that most would have adopted on their own,” often leading to the acceptance of fringe views. It’s a concept he refers to as “group polarization” and has “many implications for economic, political institutions.”
Such is the case with immigration discussions. During the Republican Primary debates the rhetoric became increasingly extreme, with each candidate offering more radical ideas that were not only completely ridiculous, but dangerous. From building expensive and ill-conceived fences to making life so unbearable for fellow humans (including natural born citizens) that they “self-deport” to the electrified fence with a moat the candidates became caught up in the polarization that many pertinent aspects of immigration were completely ignored. Now that the discussion has opened, up there isn’t much talk about alligators and electricity. The ideas, while strong evidence of Prof. Sunstein’s research, were ridiculous and a product of the fringe. Of course the Right isn’t entirely to blame either. One need only skim comments on any only article to see the same group polarization occur in regards to all aspects of life, both political and personal, conservative and progressive, Baby Boomers and Millennials, men and women, and just about every. article. ever.
However, Sunstein also found that when multiple perspectives and competing views come together in respectful conversation people “often come to realize . . . that their own view is one-sided, or overly simplified, or in need of important qualification.” This in turn leads to at least the possibility that other views may contain insights, if not a moderation of previous views. Contrasting opinions are not only important, but vital to creating any beneficial and long lasting solutions and opening dialogue. With the recent watershed moments in politics on topics that are at once extremely influential on the nation and deeply personal the dialogue can go one of two ways; everyone can bunker down and continue to enforce “group polarization,” or they can open up respectful conversations with people who have different views, fostering goodwill and respect for other well thought out ideas and bringing about lasting change.
Such was the case for me during the past few weeks. I have a Facebook friend who
is very politically minded. He and I agree that we as a Nation face a plethora of problems, but disagree on almost every issue. It would be easy to ignore everything he posts, shake my head and write him off as uninformed, but he’s not. Instead, I know that I can share my opinions and he can share his and our questions can be answered. I don’t agree with everything he says, and I’m sure he shakes his head with most of my ideas, but we both go in well informed and I know that nothing he says is a personal attack, merely a different opinion. It’s gotten to the point that I look forward to our exchanges and the opportunity to understand completely valid and legitimate perspectives that may be different than mine. We have the same fundamental hopes for the future and want what we feel is best for the world, and I respect him more for having his own opinions.
There’s hope for the discourse of the country, and lasting change is possible, but compromise is crucial, and polarization is poison to progress. Seek to engage people with who you disagree with in positive conversation, and you’ll find that we all want what’s best and everyone who’s informed has some good ideas. Who knows, maybe you’ll even change your mind. I know I have.
 Cass R. Sunstein, “The Law of Group Polarization,” John M. Olin Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91 (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=199668). I first learned about Mr. Sunstein’s work from Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America, a
collection of interviews with prominent white nationalist groups edited by Carol M. Swain and Russ Nieli. I hope to use their book over the next few weeks to highlight some of the opinions of these groups that rarely see opposition because no one really knows what to say to it. Understanding their views will help combat their subtle attacks on acceptance and human respect.