I didn’t vote for him but he’s my President, and I hope he does a good job.
—John Wayne (b. 1907) on the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960
I hope he fails.
—Rush Limbaugh (b. 1951) on the election of Barack Obama in 2008
The point is that ideologists are “terrible simplifiers.” Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their own merits. One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out come the prepared formulae. And when these ideas are suffused with apocalyptic fervor, ideas become weapons, with dreadful results.3
A third way to specify is to privilege the specific assertion (including the empirically valid generalization) over the general assertion. As Jonathan Rauch observes, a turning point in the development of modern science was the discovery—in geology around the turn of the 19th century, and soon recognized by other fields—that shifting the argument away from abstract and often philosophically charged questions (“Can miracles be invoked to explain natural phenomena?”) and toward specific empirical questions (“Are fossils found in the same order throughout the Devonian shale?”) can help to diffuse paralyzing controversies and even turn ideological foes into fellow researchers.4 Scientists can be as stubborn and ideological as anyone else, of course, but the field’s focus on specificity and empirical inquiry (“Show me!”) has done much to foster more constructive conversations.The fourth way to favor specificity is to rely first and foremost on inductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the bottom up by accumulating specific data points, as compared to deductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the top down by exploring the implications of true general premises or statements. Deduction is the great friend of ideology (especially “total ideology”).5 Induction specifies.6. Qualify (in most cases).To qualify something you say is to make it less definitive, less comprehensive, and more nuanced, and thus to acknowledge the possibility that some pieces of the puzzle may still be missing. To qualify, then, is almost always to announce—even if indirectly—a willingness to engage further with the other side in pursuit of getting it right.Another meaning of “to qualify” is to enumerate the qualities or characteristics of something. In this sense, the habit of qualifying is cousin to the habit of specifying.A third meaning is to be or become competent for a task or position. (As in: “She’s qualified for the job.”) The act of qualifying, then, is broadly associated with the condition of being duly prepared. In this sense, we might suggest that persons who “do not qualify”—either in the sense of lacking needed credentials or in the sense of making claims without duly qualifying them—are likely neither fully competent nor ready to fulfill the requirements of office or trust.Of course, in today’s world of dueling talking points and partisan political warfare, qualifying—in the sense modifying or limiting, often by giving exceptions—is frequently treated as a sign of insufficient zeal and perhaps even of wimpiness. But for the serious mind, the opposite is true. To qualify is to demonstrate competence. And for the highly depolarizing person, to err is human; to qualify, divine.7. Keep the conversation going.At the very heart of democratic civil society is the idea that we don’t stop talking to one another, even when—perhaps especially when—the conversation is frustrating and seems futile. Why? Because ending the conversation is tantamount to ending the relationship, and when the relationship ends, everything hardens, polarization reigns, and your opponents turn into your enemies. When we end a conversation, we typically fill the void with accusations, name-calling, exaggeration, and the striking of poses.Keeping the conversation going is itself a style of conversation, and even a way of thinking. The political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain reminds us that “a commitment to democratic politics, or the possibility of such a politics, commits one to an imperative to keep debates alive rather than attempting to resolve them definitively by silencing one side to a dispute….” In her own work, therefore, she strives to “articulate a strong set of claims that do not have the effect of silencing the voices of others.” She writes: “The need for, or conviction of, a correct and encompassing standpoint, the immediate excitement and visceral satisfaction of theories that make possible scenarios in which the analyst moves in on a given turf, sets up court, and summarily dispenses epistemic and political ‘justice,’ is one I eschew and devoutly hope that I avoid.”6The concept of “Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People” draws inspiration from two sources. The first, of course, is Stephen R. Covey’s outstanding book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Indeed, Covey’s fifth habit—“Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood,” which calls for empathetic listening—is itself deeply relevant to the task of political depolarization.The second source of inspiration is the seven virtues of classical Christianity. Moreover, just as those seven virtues are divided by teachers into two categories—the so-called theological or transcendent virtues of faith, hope, and charity; and the so-called cardinal or natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—the seven habits of highly depolarizing people can also be divided into two categories, with habits one through three being the highest habits, or those of the most overarching importance, and four through seven being the cardinal habits, or those attainable intellectual habits on which so much else depends.Will they work? They do for me. I have my own wounds from the culture wars, as many of us do, and some of mine have been self-inflicted. As I’ve attempted recently to transition to less polarizing ways of analyzing issues and expressing myself, I’ve found that it helps to keep these seven habits in mind, in the hope that they’ll eventually become my intellectual default settings.Making use of them certainly doesn’t tell me what to think about any particular issue, but attending to them does seem to help me think more carefully and, I hope, more honestly. Ultimately habits of mind oriented to depolarization are, to change metaphors again, less a microscope than a new pair of glasses—less a way of seeing a few things more clearly than a different way of seeing many things. And surely a different way of seeing is what’s needed. As Lincoln put it in 1862, when the occasion is piled high with difficulty, the first and great challenge is to think anew.
1Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization (Working Paper, June 2014), pp. 4, 6–7.2Walzer, The Company of Critics (Basic Books, 1988), p. 230. See also pp. 143–51 for Walzer’s description of Albert Camus as a practitioner of criticism from within. While it’s true, of course, that social criticism is not in the same category of phenomena as political depolarization, Walzer’s insights about the former appear to be remarkably relevant to the latter. For example, Walzer writes (p. 151):
The standard view of critical distance rests on a homely analogy: we are more ready to find fault with other people than with ourselves. If we are to be properly critical, then, we must turn our own people into “the others.” We must look at them as if they were total strangers; or we must make ourselves into strangers to them. The trouble with the analogy is that such easy fault-finding is never very effective. It can be brutal enough, but it doesn’t touch the conscience of the people to whom it is addressed. The task of the social critic is precisely to touch the conscience. Hence heretics, prophets, insurgent intellectuals, rebels—Camus’s kind of rebels—are insiders all: they know the texts and the tender places of their own culture. Criticism is a more intimate activity than the standard view allows [emphasis added].
For recent social science research that supports the utility of “criticizing within,” see Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (October 7, 2015).3Bell, The End of Ideology (The Free Press, 1962), p. 405. The phrase “terrible simplifiers” comes from the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt. Scholars have offered many varying definitions of “ideology,” but here we can define it as a set of ideas, attitudes, and symbols that work together to explain (justify, criticize, categorize) something, or in some cases everything (this can be called a “total” ideology), and which typically contains three interrelated components: an affective component (tells me how I feel about it), a motivational component (tells me what to do about it), and a cognitive component (tells me how to think about it). It’s also worth remembering that writers going back to Marx have emphasized that an ideology typically is linked to, and serves, a particular social interest or group. As Michael Walzer puts it: “The claim to monopolize a dominant good—when worked up for public purposes—constitutes an ideology” (Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality [Basic Books, 1983], p. 12). Ideological thinking can be very satisfying and arguably at times very productive, but research clearly suggests that ideological thinking also commonly fosters distortion, oversimplification, and the selective processing of information. See John T. Jost, “The End of the End of Ideology,” American Psychologist (October 2006), pp. 652–4, 657.4See Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 70–4.5Daniel Bell defines total ideology as “an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality” that is comparable to a “secular religion.” Interestingly, he suggests that intellectuals who embraces a “total ideology” are guilty of “the sin of pride,” by which he means the hubris of “assuming they know how life should be ordered or how the blueprint of the new society should read . . . .” The psychologist Hans Toch, looking at essentially the same style of thinking, describes it as a “closed system,” or “a set of beliefs that has come to be self-sufficient, in the sense that a person would no longer have to go outside of it for interpretations.” See Bell, The End of Ideology, pp. 302, 399–400; and Toch, The Social Psychology of Social Movements (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965), pp. 149–153.6Elshtain, Power Trips and Other Journeys: Essays in Feminism as Civic Discourse (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. xii, xviii.