The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously observed that if everyone is a Lutheran then no one is a Lutheran. What he meant is that if you’re born into a culture in which everybody has a similar worldview, you don’t have an opportunity to develop genuine belief because your convictions are not subject to scrutiny.
Put another way, if you don’t talk to people who hold different views, you will not know what they believe, and you won’t even know what you believe. Having conversations with people who hold beliefs different from yours affords you the opportunity to reflect — and only then can you evaluate whether your beliefs hold true.
Over the last few years, Americans seem to have convinced themselves that not speaking to people who hold different moral and political beliefs makes us better people — even on college campuses where intellectual sparring has historically been part of the curricula. It does not. However, it does make us less likely to revise our beliefs and more likely to convince ourselves that others should believe as we do.
Over time, failure to have conversations across divides cultivates a belief myopia that strengthens our views and deepens our divisions.
Forget about healing political divides, overcoming polarization or the dangers of mischaracterizing people who hold different beliefs. Reaching out and speaking with someone who has different ideas is beneficial, not for utopian social reasons, but for your own good — for your “belief hygiene.” You engage in dental hygiene not to bring insurance costs down for the masses, but because you don’t want cavities, pain and gum disease.
You should engage in belief hygiene for similarly selfish reasons: It’s an opportunity to reflect upon what you believe and why you believe it. If other social goods happen to occur as a byproduct — friendships, increased understanding, changed minds — that’s great.
Having conversations across divides isn’t particularly complicated.
Figure out why someone believes what they believe. The best way to do this is simply to ask, “Why do you believe that?” and then listen. Don’t tell them why they’re wrong or “parallel talk” and explain what you believe. Figure out their reasons for their belief by asking questions. Then ask yourself if their conclusions are justified by the rationale they provided.
Call out extremists on your side. Identify the authoritarians and fundamentalists who claim to represent your views and speak bluntly about how they take things too far. This is a way to build trust and signal that you’re not an extremist. (If you can’t figure out how your side goes too far, that may be a sign that you are part of the problem and need to moderate your beliefs.)
Let people be wrong. It’s OK if someone doesn’t believe what you believe. Far more often than not, their beliefs don’t present an existential threat — they’re just one person — and you’ll be just fine. Don’t even bother to push back or point out holes in their arguments. Listen, learn and let them be wrong. Conclude by thanking them for the conversation. (As a good rule of thumb, the more strongly you disagree with someone’s position, the more important it is to thank them for the discussion and end on a high note.)
In our highly polarized environment, talking to those who hold different beliefs isn’t easy, but it’s easier than you think. Fewer people talking across divides creates a hunger for honest, sincere conversation. But what there should really be is a hunger for truth. And the best way to achieve that is to subject your beliefs to scrutiny.