Listening to the people who think we are wrong

Among the most corrosive developments of recent years—one that predates the election of Donald Trump—has been a breakdown in our ability to debate and reason with others with whom we disagree. The term du jour, “tribalism,” replaced the earlier “polarization” precisely to capture the added ingredient of animosity that has made even conversation across partisan divides difficult. Mistrust and hostility have been grafted onto disagreement about ideas.

Political scientists differ about how widespread the phenomenon is—some seeing it shared broadly across American society, while others believe it confined to activist elites. I lean toward the latter view, though the disease seems to be spreading awfully fast. The difference hardly matters, because activists drive and shape public debates. And, either way, the resulting take-no-prisoners politics threatens the future of democratic government, which presupposes disagreement and depends on willingness to work through and across differences from a sense of shared community.

We need to do better.

Listening with empathy

I was a law professor before coming to the foundation. Asked about the educational mission of law school, most of my former colleagues would probably say something about learning fundamental legal concepts, coupled with the analytic moves needed to “think like a lawyer.” But I have long believed that the most important skill we teach young lawyers is how to appreciate an opposing argument in its strongest light: how to hear it with tolerance and see it as it appears through the eyes of the person making it. Put simply, we help law students understand how an argument that seems completely wrong to them can seem right and reasonable to someone else.

Let’s call that “listening with empathy.”

Learning to listen with empathy matters for a number of reasons. An advocate needs to see an opponent’s argument in its strongest light, not only to counter the position effectively, but also to fully understand his or her own position—its weaknesses as well as its strengths—and so be properly prepared to defend it. Nor is this the only reason, because adversarial advocacy is only part of what lawyers do. Most legal work involves bargaining among conflicting interests and finding ways to settle disputes. Good lawyers know how to negotiate and cooperate; they know (in the phrase made famous by Roger Fisher and William Ury) how to “get to yes”—something made vastly easier if one fully and fairly comprehends both sides of an issue. There is a reason lawyers have historically constituted such a disproportionate share of our legislators and executives, and it’s not because they know how to argue. It is because they know how to find common ground.

Not that compromising is always the right thing to do. Without doubt, there are matters of principle too important to relinquish, and instances in which an adversary is too inflexible or too extreme to accommodate. In today’s public discourse, moreover, outright fabrication has become, if not quite acceptable, increasingly common. But one cannot know if or when these are the case unless and until one has examined the other side’s position honestly and confronted the weaknesses in one’s own position fearlessly.

And why not do that? There is no contradiction or incompatibility between caring passionately about an issue and taking the time to understand an opposing argument, and nothing about doing so necessitates changing one’s mind or position. If that becomes more likely as a result of listening with empathy—or, more realistically, if doing so makes one more disposed to find ground for mutual accommodation—that’s a good thing that has happened for the best possible reason, namely, a fair and rational assessment of the strength of the respective claims.

Listening with empathy is not the unique province of lawyers. It is not a specialized skill, nor something that requires extensive technical training. It is a mental discipline that calls for self-conscious effort, but that anyone can adopt. I say self-conscious, because attending dispassionately to ideas we abhor is neither easy nor natural. It requires discipline and self-honesty: an exercise of mental muscles that, like any muscle, need regular use to stay fit and strong. But if we are to make progress as a society, few things are more important than keeping these particular muscles healthy—and this is true whether what’s at stake is naming a falsehood, prevailing in a contest of will or political power, or finding room to compromise. In every case, taking the time to make sure we understand the best version of our opponents’ position will not only make us more effective, it also will likely lower the temperature and increase the chances of reaching a suitable outcome. Indignation and outrage may still be called for on occasion, but if we listen to each other attentively and fairly, the situations in which that turns out to be true are likely to be fewer, and more appropriate.

Listening with empathy is, for all these reasons, a responsibility shared by every citizen in a democracy. But, most especially, it is a duty for the political, social, and intellectual leaders whose behavior is supposed to model expectations for the rest of us.

Listening without hearing

Yet as tribalism has intensified and spread, listening this way has all but disappeared from today’s social and political discourse. We have increasingly become a society in which no one listens to the other side, not really. We do not ignore each other exactly; people on different sides of issues pay attention to opposing viewpoints. What we do is worse. We scoff and sneer and insult each other. We treat people whose ideas differ from ours in ways that make understanding seem like the last thing we care about. Then we surround ourselves with people who think like we do and luxuriate in our shared anger and contempt. For all the talk of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” on social media, these are hardly limited to the internet. And our leaders are failing worst of all.

Three techniques in particular pervade the practice of paying heed to an opposing argument without condescending to meet it:

  • First, there is the “straw man” method—a tried and true practice that involves taking the weakest or most extreme or least plausible argument in favor of a position and acting as if it were the only argument for that position; a variation of this method takes the most extreme and unattractive advocates for a position and treats them as typical.
  • Second is the practice of attributing bad motives to one’s opponents. Those employing this approach assume that people who take a contrary position know in their hearts that they are wrong and make the arguments they do for some inappropriate reason, such as racism or self-interest, that makes it easy to ignore what they have to say.
  • Third, a relatively new entrant, is what might be called the identity excuse: “We don’t need to listen to them because they are [blank].” Then fill in the blank with whatever identity you think warrants dismissal: a white male, a Black Lives Matter supporter, a Trump voter, a Democrat, the oil industry, a union, someone who received money for their work, and so on.

Often these moves come in combination, for they are easily blended. What they share in common is that all become pretexts not to address the merits of an argument one dislikes.

You undoubtedly will have noted the absence of examples in this description of techniques. That was intentional on my part, because I don’t want disagreement over my particular picks to distract from the central point, which is that use of these dodges has become commonplace. Instead, I invite you to think of your own examples—confident that no one will find this difficult. Now, a tougher challenge: see if you can produce a second set of examples, but this time coming from people with whom you agree. If you cannot do so, you are not being honest with yourself. Because while blame may not be shared equally, people on all sides regularly use these devices to counter arguments they reject; and if one side has been worse than the other, still both have been bad enough.

I accept that it may be a lot to ask elected officials or candidates for office to always stick to the merits this way, especially now that political campaigning has become a continuous activity. It may be a lot even to ask of journalists, ensnared as they are in their challenged industry’s competitive fight for survival. It is not, however, a lot to ask of people working in philanthropy, who benefit from all those advantages that supposedly make us independent. With access to any intellectual resources we need, freedom to choose our issues and pursue them over whatever time frame we like, and no need to worry about attracting customers or alienating voters, what possible excuse is there for funders to take shortcuts or fail to engage substantively with people who take opposing positions?

The answer may be none, but we are part of the same society, immersed in the same culture, and it would hardly be shocking if we fell victim to the same provocations and frustrations. In fact, listening to discussions and presentations at conferences and in meetings, including in my own organization—listening to my own conversations, for that matter, my voice included—I fear this is exactly what is happening.

One very public sign is the favorable reception accorded in philanthropy to Anand Giridharadas’ provocative new book, Winners Take All. To the apparent delight of foundation staff across the country who are avidly reading and sharing the book, Giridharadas takes a group of highly visible philanthropists out to the woodshed for a good old-fashioned spanking. This has made him an industry darling and go-to headline speaker.

Giridharadas’ thesis is straightforward: A new generation of philanthropists that earned its wealth through market activities is engaged in a misguided effort to address social ills through the same mechanisms, when it should be asking more fundamental questions about the system that produced its wealth in the first place. I happen to agree with this view, which is why I have in speeches and writings questioned the mania for impact investing, and why the Hewlett Foundation is actively exploring how to supplant the reigning neoliberal philosophy that Giridharadas derisively labels “MarketWorld.”

Yet while I share Giridharadas’ outlook, his presentation of it has conspicuous shortcomings. Giridharadas overstates the importance of the philanthropy he criticizes, which is really a quite small part of the field, while overlooking hundreds of funders and thousands of NGOs doing valuable and important work even by his standards. He offers no evidence for the improbable claim that these market-oriented philanthropic interventions have blunted the prospects for more radical reform—a failure better attributed to opposition from a rather large and effective conservative political movement. And he ignores both the difficulty of articulating a suitable alternative to neoliberalism—which is considerable—and a substantial literature critical of the more conventionally liberal solutions he periodically offers in asides.

But these failings are not the reason I find the book’s uncritical approval by people in philanthropy so disheartening. The chief problem—and the reason I mention the book here—is that at no point does Giridharadas make a serious effort to understand the arguments or reasoning of the people he is criticizing. Instead, he has written a 263-page putdown that could serve as a textbook for the avoidance techniques described above. In Giridharadas’s telling, the inhabitants of MarketWorld believe as they do for flimsy, straw-man reasons; or because they are privileged (mostly) white elites; or because they are intellectual cowards, conning themselves into believing they are doing good when really they are just self-interested.

Would that it were so simple. In truth, much can be said for the neoliberal system that Giridharadas dismisses, which has undeniably played a crucial role in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And while that system may have run its course, understanding why—and, more important, figuring out what should replace it—is a complex matter that requires more than a contemptuous backhand. Sharing Giridharadas’ position, I might be able to make the arguments for him. But I should not have to—and neither should those he is attacking or those who support them. Asking people to listen with empathy means asking them to view opposing arguments in their best light, not to generate the arguments themselves or imagine what they might be.

If you already agree with Giridharadas’ thesis, you may find the book fun to read. He is a talented writer—skilled at ingenuously mocking his targets and using rhetoric to drum up a very pleasurable sense of indignation. But you won’t actually learn anything. If you disagree with him, you will find a caricature of yourself, a funhouse mirror version that never attends in a serious way to the underlying beliefs that animate you. But you won’t learn anything either. And if you are new to these debates, you will learn that the author is really angry about a world view he thinks self-evidently wrong, but you won’t learn anything about why he is right, why the people he criticizes are mistaken, why they might nevertheless believe as they do, or what the substantive arguments are on either side.

It’s easy to preach to the choir, and even easier to be part of it. It’s easy to surround ourselves with people who think as we do and to dismiss everyone who disagrees as stupid or corrupt. It’s especially easy to act this way when our political leaders—led or goaded by the president, with his outsized megaphone—relentlessly fan the flames of discord and contempt. Adopting a tribal mindset when everyone else seems to be doing so is more than just easy. It’s satisfying.

Which makes it all the more important not to fall prey to this way of thinking. We must instead discipline ourselves to argue with opponents empathetically, and not only because this could make our efforts to overcome them more effective. We must do it because, unless we can hear our opponents and make them feel heard (and they us), we stand little chance of maintaining our democracy—not in a society as complex and diverse as this one, comprised of people with so many different, intensely-held interests and passions and beliefs.

The Hewlett Foundation's commitment

The best way to develop the discipline needed to listen empathetically is simply to do it: to make ourselves hear and earnestly engage our critics’ best arguments. Going to the gym can feel like a chore, but we do it anyway to stay healthy. So, too, listening with empathy. To that end, the staff of the Hewlett Foundation will spend focused time in the coming year hearing from—and listening to—people who question our work and our strategies.

We’ll begin by dedicating a week to studying the underlying psychology of tribalism, its consequences for how we reason, and what we can do to overcome it. In the months that follow, each program will then invite speakers who fundamentally disagree with the program’s strategies to present their reasoning and arguments. Afterwards, the team will hold a second meeting on their own to discuss what they heard and what they learned.

For this to work, much depends on finding the right speakers. We want people who disagree with us in ways that are meaningful and challenging, but not outlandish or wholly implausible. Were we funding historical work on World War II, I would not invite a Holocaust denier. There is no point in having someone whose position is wholly at odds with proven facts and expert consensus. The same will be true, frankly, for climate denial. Inviting speakers whose views fly in the face of a consensus supported by overwhelming evidence fairly interpreted would be counterproductive and would, most likely, just confirm the sense some have that spending time listening to opponents this way is pointless.

But neither will it serve our purposes to hear only from speakers whose disagreements with us are peripheral or incidental, and so unthreatening. The trick is to identify genuinely challenging positions—which may be to our left, to our right, or both—and then see what we learn by grappling honestly and conscientiously with people who advocate them. It will be up to each program to do this for itself, but I trust them to identify the points of greatest vulnerability in their thinking, and I believe they will learn just by asking the question.

The exercise will be a start, but it can’t be a one-time occurrence. We need to cultivate a regular practice of engaging with people who think we are wrong as part of our ordinary operations. That I went to the gym a few years ago won’t keep me healthy today; I need to keep exercising. This is, if anything, even more important when it comes to justification and analysis. Arguments and ideas and ways of attacking and defending them are continually evolving, and it’s necessary to remain actively engaged with the full range of thinking in a field to remain effective.

We live at a time when many of our most cherished values are under attack or eroding (a painful reality highlighted by just how tired and banal that observation sounds). Among the most endangered ideals are a cluster of principles associated with the Enlightenment philosophy that inspired the founding of our nation and have exemplified it at its best: toleration, rationality, freedom of conscience and the free exchange of ideas, belief in empiricism and reason. Central to these principles, and to the process of rational argument itself, is the idea of skepticism—skepticism about our own self-evident truths most of all. John Stuart Mill put it thus in On Liberty:

“Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

Living that paradox as regular practice can be difficult, especially in challenged times like these. It’s so much easier to take shortcuts, to stop asking, to believe what we want to believe and surrender to the myriad ways our minds are programmed to be irrational. But (another cliché) no one said it would be easy. And for those of us privileged to work in philanthropy—privileged to steward resources, with the responsibility to use them as best we can to make the world a better place—taking the more demanding path is an inviolable duty.


*All illustrations by Mike Austin/CCBY-NC-ND

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