RALEIGH — Why are you reading this column?
Make no mistake — I’m glad you are. I hope you are an avid reader of editorials, op-eds, and columns in newspapers, magazines, and online forums. But motivation matters.
If you read my column, or anyone else’s work, because you already expect to agree with the opinions expressed and want to feel reaffirmed, I get it. If you agree and hope you’ll gain more “rhetorical ammunition” with which to argue your case, I get that even more. It’s certainly one reason I read conservative editorialists and magazines voraciously.
But if you don’t necessarily expect to agree with me, yet plan to read my column anyway, you have my sincere thanks. All opinion writers ought to aspire to attract readers with whom they don’t already agree. If I’m not trying to persuade, I’m not really doing my job. And if you’re not open to being persuaded — or, at least, to learning more about a topic and how different people think about it — then, if you’ll pardon me for being blunt, you aren’t quite doing your job as a reader, either.
It’s no news at this point that our political conversation has become coarse, constrained, and unsatisfying. Indeed, the conversation all too often devolves into a shouting match among partisan hacks rather than a reasoned exchange of contrasting views about challenging issues.
Across the political spectrum, people say they don’t like this harsh turn in our politics. But which came first, the shouting matches or audience demand for them? Don’t the most bellicose, bombastic, or hyperbolic talking heads get the most public attention, which encourages them to maintain their shtick and others to copy them?
In my view, both the purveyors and the consumers of content have some power here. If you yearn for a better political dialogue, reward those who deliver it with your time and money. As for politicians and commentators, they can set a better example of constructive engagement across political differences — an example that, according to a growing body of empirical evidence, the public truly will follow.
Dr. Vincent Price, now president of Duke University, has spent much of his scholarly career studying these issues. In one 2002 paper, he and his co-authors found that exposure to political disagreement helps people not just come up with more and better reasons for their own views but also helps them understand why other people might reasonably come to a different conclusion.
Interestingly, this effect occurred when people were actually talking across the political divide with acquaintances. It didn’t come from exposure to the news media, where the one-sided screeds and shouting matches were already crowding out more substantive fare.
Coincidentally, it was at Duke, but before Price’s arrival last year, that my colleagues and I founded the North Carolina Leadership Forum, which brings people from across the political spectrum together each year for precisely the kinds of conversations — respectful but spirited — that seem to bear the most fruit.
Our goal isn’t unanimity. People disagree. In fact, a lack of substantive disagreement — within an organization, a profession, or a government — can itself be a sign of trouble, evidence that the group may not be perceiving, understanding, and carefully vetting all its options.
In our view, the proper course is neither to engage in wishful thinking nor to encourage groupthink. It is to treat others with the respect they are due as fellow human beings. In my case, this means that I should assume you have good reasons for what you believe, and vice versa.
If we disagree, I should hope to persuade you, yes. But I should also be open to having my own mind changed. Even if persuasion never occurs, I should hope to have you finish my column having learned something new — a fact, an argument, a way of thinking — that you will appreciate knowing even as you continue to disagree with my conclusions.
And, of course, I should hope that you will read my next column.