Reading Widely and Deeply

Writing in the New York Times, Emma Roller points out:

The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.

It  has been well-documented people receive their news and commentary from sources that are more likely to affirm rather than challenge their views. The internet and cable television have allowed people to seek out boutique mediums. We are placing ourselves in ideological silos, making it more difficult to relate to, or even understand, our neighbors who think differently than we do on those topics we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: politics, religion, social mores. The lack of interaction with different views makes it easier to dehumanize people who hold values foreign to our own. The common ground we share hides behind a thick wall of fog.

An oft-suggested possible solution is for people to intentionally seek out a plurality of views. Digest news from a basket of sources, including those that do not share one’s outlook. Read opinions from people who are on the other side of the aisle. Try to engage the strongest possible version of the argument and don’t spend time knocking down straw men. These are laudable practices and good for us who live in a pluralistic society. Perhaps if we engaged in these acts more we would be able to say of our neighbors, “I think you are a good person who wants what is best for our community, but I disagree that what you want is the best or even good for us.” That would be a significant improvement on the tendency to impugn the character of our neighbors for having religious or political beliefs that are not our own.

I also wonder about how what we read, see, and hear shapes our character. A broad selection of sources can form us in very good ways so that we are more charitable toward our neighbors, have a fuller picture of reality, and are aware of our blind spots. Still, there is room for mining deep those resources who make us into the people we want to become.

I have, at times, intentionally limited my exposure to some commentators, not because they challenged me or caused me cognitive dissonance, but because I saw their works having a deleterious effect on me. I became more snarky, argumentative, angry. I wanted instead to read authors who inspired me toward charity. Our time is unfortunately finite and so we have to make choices. We cannot read everything all the time.

It is good to spend more time with people and writings that help us become who we want to be. I choose to give more attention to authors who encourage me to pursue God’s kingdom, to be more generous and loving, and who invite me to deeper thinking and a more thorough examination of my life. Selfishness and self-aggrandizement come easy to me. Pursuing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God are challenges. I now find myself asking, for example, am I more inclined to horde or give after reading this column? Does spending time with certain people make me more or less likely to help someone stranded on the side of the road?

Reading broadly helps us understand and see the humanity in our neighbors. Let us also read deeply those authors who urge us to become better persons and a better community.

What authors do you appreciate outside your political, religious, and social camp? What authors do you read who push you to become a better person?