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?

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Say More About That

I want to make it my habit to use one phrase as my response to other people: say more about that. This statement is a countercultural act. Social media encourages quick responses to events. The statements that garner the most attention are usually the most opinionated—all the more if they come in the form of a sarcastic meme or gif—no matter if those opinions accurately reflect reality. I want to stop, listen, and learn, rather than simply offer my opinion. I want to hear the other person in a conversation instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk.

By temperament and training I make quick evaluations of arguments. As I read or listen to a person’s point of view I am constantly keeping a running tab of where I think they are right, and, more usually, where I think they are wrong. I have written before how my systematic theology professor in seminary, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, challenged me by his example to seek areas of agreement with others’ views before pointing out disagreements or offering corrections. I see I need to take a step further, or a step back, if you will. Before I look for areas of agreement, I need to make sure I understand the other person. To do that, I need to truly hear them.

When I read a statement from someone, I am quick to assign beliefs and values to them that have nothing to do with the argument they set forth. I think I understand their worldview entirely. If I disagree with an author on a political point, I will assume they espouse all sorts of unseemly social values. I hurriedly dismiss instead of seeking understanding. This is particularly dangerous in our pithy and distracted discourse. The truth is no one can be reduced to 140 characters. Slowing down and seeking deeper understanding of the other by asking them to, “Say more about that,” will hopefully help me see the nuance in the other’s argument. It will help me know more accurately whether I do agree or disagree with the person’s claim. And I will be better able to craft a thoughtful assessment of their position. Hopefully, such a discipline will help me see more dimensions in the person as well.

Last year Alissa Wilkinson wrote a thoughtful essay, “In Praise of Slow Opinions,” in which she laid out the reasons for not giving in to the pressure to form an immediate response and instead, to ruminate on a thought before giving your view. Wilkinson writes, “The good thing about forming opinions slowly, and then bouncing them off people who routinely disagree with you and aren’t afraid to say so—which describes most of my closest friends—is that when you are finally ready to write or say something, you can be more certain of it, because you’ve got a leg to stand on.”

I see a danger in this program. I might give in to the temptation to hide behind wanting more analysis when speaking against or for a controversial topic is needed. Asking someone to “Say more about that” should not be a means of avoiding taking a stand for justice. Rather, listening better should make me better able to clearly state why an unjust act or position is wrong. Sometimes situations demand swift action before a slow, reasoned discourse can happen. Just as knee-jerk responses are encouraged by our current instant discourse, my suggested discourse might have the opposite problematic effect of delaying when immediate response is needed. Discipline is needed to know when to speak and when to listen.

Using, “Say more about that,” may not drive up my shares or likes, but hopefully it will help me to understand people better and to appreciate their humanity more, even if I disagree with them.

New Book Release, “The Politics of Praise”

I have published a new daily devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146In the book readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146, meditating on one verse at a time. These prayer-poems formed the political life of ancient Israel. If we pray them we will also find God shaping our values and political agendas. The writer of Psalm 146 minimizes the importance of governmental leaders as he recounts Yahweh’s acts of great power and commitment to justice for people on society’s margins. Psalm 72’s author offers a prayer for the king to rule justly, care for the oppressed, and have God’s blessing. Paired together these psalms exhibit a dynamic picture of God’s political agenda.

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When we face the temptation to confuse our commitment to the kingdom of God with our commitment to our country, the writer of Psalm 146 reminds us hope and salvation come from Yahweh alone. When we want to write off governmental leaders as useless at best or obstructions to God’s purposes at worst, the writer of Psalm 72 gives us words to pray for our leaders so that they might be held accountable to God’s political agenda.

Along with thirty-two daily readings and reflections, The Politics of Praise also contains brief essays on Yahweh’s political agenda and how praying these psalms aligns our priorities with God’s. Other essays explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. Two appendices at the end of the guide describe some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalms, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

The Politics of Praise is available at Amazon.com for $3.99 on the Kindle format, or $7.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

I have written three other self-published devotionals on various psalms: Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. Eddy Ekmekji and I co-wrote an Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light. All these books are available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author pages at Amazon and Facebook.

Civility Project: Political Polarization Trends in the U.S.

Pew Research released, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” a report detailing the widening gulf between American citizens along political lines over the last twenty years. More people now report being more consistently conservative and liberal than previously, leading to stretching the social fabric of the nation.

The report’s overview offers many things to consider from a civility perspective. First, let us dispense with a myth that being more consistently conservative or liberal makes people inherently less civil. Similarly we should not follow the temptation to think being moderate or centrist is somehow more civil. (Also, moderate or centrist is extremely difficult to define. Is someone a moderate because she takes a centrist position on most issues or because she holds a generally equal amount of conservative and liberal views on different matters?) Rather, the challenge for all of us—liberals, moderates, and conservatives—is how do we remain open to engaging in an appreciative manner views that are different than our own? How willing are we to be in community with people who disagree with us? How committed are we to not dehumanize others for holding views we find wrong? To this end, Pew’s report details troubling trends.

As Americans have grown more liberal and conservative, so has their distrust and even antipathy for the other side. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” Clearly ideas and policies matter. One party may very well have plans that if put in place would hurt the nation. What concerns me is that this growing antipathy breaks the social fabric necessary for a pluralistic democracy. To credibly engage each other in the public square requires we give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, to trust he operates out of good intentions. I believe we must be able to say to one another, “Even though I may think your positions are misguided and possibly dangerous, I trust that you want the best for the nation.” Otherwise we have a rapidly decreasing amount of room to find mutually beneficial solutions.

This antipathy has serious consequences for our communities. Pew reports as people move more into “ideological silos,” they grow less likely to have friends who do not share their political views. More troubling, people express less desire to even live near those with a different political outlook. We’re becoming a nation that wants to be neighbors only with people who think like we do. Forget the redistricting fights that happen every decade—if we continue on this trend, we’ll gerrymander ourselves. This area of the report seems to be the most difficult to parse since the researchers found plenty of correlative but non-political data shaping the responses of how people choose where to live. For example, liberals voiced a preference for urban living where they could walk to the grocer, conservatives liked a rural environment with more space, and just about nobody loved the suburbs. One wonders how this data is any different than the realities that have shaped our communities historically. I live in the Bay Area of California, where many liberals flocked and many conservatives avoided for decades. Is the data new because what we’ve long suspected has now been shown with evidence? Or is this data new because more people are now saying explicitly, “it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views”?

Some might argue that for the sake of civility and the social fabric it would be better for consistent conservatives and liberals to moderate their political views, but I don’t think that’s a likely possibility. Asking people to give up, diminish, or silence core convictions isn’t a very civil request. Nor would a mass moderation movement necessarily change these disheartening trends. One could just as easily imagine moderates preferring only to live near other moderates and desiring to ghettoize the extreme left and right.

A possible solution I see would be a lot more messy and uncomfortable than our current situation. Silos and ghettos are a lot easier to maintain than choosing to live together. I believe we begin recapturing a positive view of our neighbors with whom we differ politically by committing to seeing them as our neighbors first before seeing them as a political adversaries. It is civil to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are operating out of good intentions. Finding ways to extend and ask for help from one another creates a neighborly environment. It becomes a lot more difficult to dehumanize someone when you help them change a tire or when they help you bring the groceries inside. That is, we remind ourselves that our neighbors have lives and concerns like us and they cannot be reduced to how far they lean left or right.

We not only try to see our neighbors for who they really are, we also take a hard look at ourselves. We ask if we are becoming more siloed, and if we are, we take steps to change course. That means fostering a willingness to make ourselves more uncomfortable by not receiving our political news only from a few sources that merely affirm our positions. We should engage news and thoughtful opinions from different sources, not to knock down or disprove those sources, but to really learn how our neighbors think. I also believe we have to take an appreciative approach, looking for what is good in our neighbor’s opinion, and seeking areas of agreement first, before we state our disagreement with him.

These trends pose special problems for the Church and they require us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we shaped more by these trends in our society or by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we view our neighbors who hold political positions that are different than ours—do we see them as children of God, or would we rather avoid them? Do we prefer to live only near those who hold similar political views as we do or are we willing to love our neighbors no matter how they vote?

2014: The Year of Civility

I’ve decided to proclaim 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. I want to highlight examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. We need to remind ourselves to see our neighbors as our neighbors and not as sub-human because they hold different values than we do. My hope is not to downplay our differences, but to draw attention to folks who find ways to truly listen to what others have to say, appreciate alternative positions, and respectfully disagree. Given that in the U.S. we have a midterm election in November, I know I need a booster shot of civility before the political rhetoric grows even more rancorous.

More than simply celebrating examples of civility, I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, that I will become more civil toward others. I hope that I can truly listen with an intent to learn and first focus on areas of agreement before moving to disagreement. I probably won’t get to be a cable news pundit following this route, but I’m OK with that.

I also plan to read Richard Mouwe’s short book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Otherwise Uncivil WorldPerhaps it will be a book club feature at some point so that folks who are also interested in this book can read it in an online community.

I created a category, Civility Project, for easy access to the posts on the topic.