Learning to listen: bridging gaps on a national level

by Anonymous Student

We can all picture the scenario: someone expresses a view or opinion that you know to be wrong. But that’s okay! You know the facts are on your side. All you have to do is let them in on what you know, and then they too can come to the right decision. But for some reason the situation doesn’t play out that way. You present your argument, clearly and meticulously, and they don’t budge. You’ve given them the truth, so why are they being so irrational?

There are underlying psychological phenomena affecting the outcome in this and similar situations. Numerous studies show people inadvertently act irrationally, and some studies even try to fish out why that is. People cling to first impressions, even if they are later disproved. This phenomenon is prevalent enough to be given a name. Confirmation bias is the tendency to accept new information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and reject data that doesn’t. We even get a literal high—a rush of dopamine—when presented with information that we already agreed with. It seems to all boil down to humanity’s sociability and cooperation. As hunter-gatherers, we needed to work togethere and depended on each other to hunt and provide. However, it was still necessary to look out for yourself.  We were concerened with our social standing and making sure everyone else pulled their weight. Arguing to ensure a higher social status or to get a lazy group member to contribute to the risk-taking hunt was vital to a cooperative environment.  Scientists speculate that we uphold what we think so much, and fight to win arguments, because we had to in order to avoid getting screwed over.

Another less antagonistic aspect of our irrationality stems from humanity’s progress through the spread of new ideas. Society and culture benefitted from incorporating new ideas and technology rapidly before everyone could fully understand what was happening. In this way our sociability and cooperation lets us all benefit and share ideas, even if specific individuals don’t understand the details. A good example in studies is the toilet. Most of us use one, but don’t understand how it operates—and they don’t need to.

However, this phenomenon of accepting things we don’t understand as our own becomes an issue in politics. Studies reflect how this phenomenon bleeds into our political or social opinions. Participants would be asked to weigh in on political issues, such as single-payer health care, after which they would then be asked to explain the programs they support. Many were unable to do so satisfactorally. Their opinions were grounded in this “shared knowledge” and trust in others, rather than in concepts they themselves understood and supported. This phenomenon limits our ability to change our minds and rationally deduce our own conclusions when given new information.

Why does this matter? After the recent presidential election, the country is divided. It may feel difficult to connect with and understand the opposing side. No one takes well to being labeled ignorant or uneducated, yet these negative sentiments prevail. Half the country feels misunderstood by the other half.

In the last month, I’ve been lucky to participate in two conversations between students from two universities: one in California, and one in Kentucky. These two groups live in opposing political climates. The students in Los Angeles live in a consistently left-leaning environment, while Kentucky is the only state in the United States that saw more college students vote for Donald Trump than Hilary Clinton: youth votes for Trump in Kentucky outnumbered votes for Clinton 59%-34%.

But the national divide of the election wasn’t clear cut. Many did not support either candidate fully and had to go for whatever they felt was best for them given the options. Not everyone feels represented by the national politics. From polarizing statements by President Trump to the rash of hate crimes, disadvantaged people across the nation bear a deepening wound. People in places like Kentucky are no exception, and the state faces real economic challenges.

Talking across difference can be a reflection of the perception of “the other.” Understandably, anyone would be afraid of being “the other,” and recognition of our cultural and economic differences should not impede our ability to accept and listen. But everyone wants to be heard. Moving past this ideological division means talking across party lines, across state borders, across socio-economic divisions. Those that feel ready and able to try to bridge the divide will inevitably run into the psychological obstacles previously described.    

The conversations between universities helped paint the students a picture of the climate in each other’s states. Both environments assume that its residents hold a universal political opinion, even though those assumptions are opposite according to the state. In Kentucky, “Democrat” can be a dirty word. In California, it’s “Republican.” The Californian students learned just how much church was interwoven into the Kentuckian’s lives, while there isn’t as much of a religious presence in day-to-day life in the golden state. 

Learning about each other helped build a connection between the two groups. They were no longer an “other,” but instead a community. This helped transition to the meat of the issues: talking across differences. How to communicate truths and opinions without making the divisive mistakes I’ve previously discussed. We discussed ambassadors into communities, ones that could be relatable rather than belittling. We discussed influencing church leaders, and with gentle changes at the church level instilling gentle change in perceptions of ideas and science. We wanted to break down the hostility between the educated and the uneducated. Despite being thousands of miles away, we shared a common goal: to connect.

Across the country, we need to focus on coming to an understanding with those who don’t see what we see. Focus on meeting people where they’re at, seeing things from where they come from, and moving forward together. Otherwise, the antagonism within our country will only continue to fester. People everywhere want to be understood and respected for their decisions. Despite political and economic disagreement, the constant spread of ideas and building of communities will help unite us. We are all on the same side, and working together rather than perpetuating opposition will help mitigate recent issues and issues to come. That won’t come from oppositional sides presenting facts point blank. But from just two little conversations, I know that it can come.

References

Kolbert, E. (2017, February 27). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). (2016, November 09). An Estimated 24 Million Young People Voted in 2016 Election. Retrieved from http://civicyouth.org/an-estimated-24-million-young-people-vote-in-2016-election/