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University Of Arizona Virtual Event Aims To Help People Listen To Each Other Again

Published: Monday, February 15, 2021 - 2:57pm
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MARK BRODIE: One of the words most often used to describe American politics and society right now is "polarized." People have their views and are not always interested in hearing perspectives that differ from or counteract their own. But a virtual event hosted by the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona aims to help bridge some of those divides and show us how to listen to each other again. The Center is hosting Princeton professors Cornell West and Robert George; the two have taught and authored a paper together. They also happen to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Dave Schmidtz joins me to talk more about tonight's event. Schmidtz is, among other things at UofA, the director of the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. And, Dave, professors George and West have done this kind of conversation fairly frequently. What, to you, is the importance right now of hosting these two gentlemen and having the kind of conversation that you're going to have with them?

DAVE SCHMIDTZ: It's not about being agnostic about truth at all and it's not about being relativist at all. So the idea is, yeah, we all have our own perspectives, but the basic truth that we all have to deal with, it's a profound fact about our world, is that the world that we're looking at from our perspective is a world full of perspectives. It's like life is a big cooking class and everyone brings something to the table. And when they go home, they want to remember that look on your face when you tasted their best effort, and that look on your face tells them they had a good day. They made your world a better place. I don't know either Robert George or Cornell West very well — I know them, but in all of my encounters with them, that is the kind of diplomacy that they bring to the table. They understand that to get somewhere in life to grow, you, you've got to be a listener — you've got to be a great listener — and you have to come to the table. It's like a foreign cuisine. You might say, "Gee, I don't know, but who knows? It might be a revelation. I'm going to give it a try."

BRODIE: Well, do you think that we are at a point in society here where being civil to each other is the kind of thing that people say to, "Well, I don't know. I guess maybe I can give it a try?"

SCHMIDTZ: Yeah, it's an interesting thought, and most people feel that something has changed in the last few years. And so I guess I think what hasn't changed is people would like to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But what has changed is that they're not super confident that the people around them feel that they want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So it's, we've lost a little bit of confidence in each other.

BRODIE: In terms, though, of the courage and the trust of other people around them, though it seems like now more than ever, it's easier to hear viewpoints with which you disagree or maybe that you hadn't considered before without having to actually interact with somebody — be it what news you watch or listen to or podcast you listen to or who you follow on social media. And yet all the evidence suggests that many of us are looking just to be in our own echo chambers.

SCHMIDTZ: That may be part of the change and it may be part of what has caused such change. So, yeah, I would say, you hear something, you read a tweet or something, and then you tweet back or whatever it is — I'm not really part of that world myself. You might tweet back, "What a jerk." And then you find you get like 2,000 likes in a few minutes. And you might, you might not realize that there were 100,000 people who clicked on you and 98,000 of them thought, "You're the jerk pal," but you never heard from them. What you heard was from the 2,000 most hysterical sharers of your view and they goad you to keep going. So the feedback we get is really skewed. And there's a phenomenon that has been known to us for a very long time. It's called confirmation bias. And the idea is that having people agree with us is just way more interesting and encouraging than having people disagree with us. And when we're living in a world that is actively sorting their information that we're receiving, then we really aren't getting any feedback.

BRODIE: Well, so in that context where, you know, we might see the tiny fraction of people who agree with us and not the vast majority of people who disagree with us, how do we try to overcome that? How do we as, as individuals, how does society try to overcome that and remind us that we can be exposed to people and ideas with which we disagree, and it's not bad, it's not scary — in many ways, it's actually quite wonderful and you can actually learn something.

SCHMIDTZ: Well, first of all, I think you've already gone a fair way toward answering your own question. And, and I think it's a reason to tune in to Robert George and Cornell West on Monday. Thank you for giving me a chance to put in a plug for it. But the, the final thing is to think in terms of what kind of person you want to be and get into a habit of, of doing some self coaching every day, like every day, a little meditating. You meditate for a minute in the morning when you get up and you say, "Tonight, when I go to bed, I will know something that I don't know yet and I won't try to win." That is a key to adulthood and it's a key to getting through these challenges that we're undergoing now on an individual basis.

BRODIE: Do you think this is the kind of thing where it, to use the old phrase, it takes two to tango, where if somebody is going to have a conversation with somebody and learn something and hear opinions they disagree, that the other person has to be willing to do the same? Like, do both parties in a conversation like this, kind of like what Professors West and George do, do both parties in a conversation have to be open-minded enough and civil enough and willing enough to hear opinions that are different from their own for this to really work?

SCHMIDTZ: That's a great question. And I'm going to say forgive me, but I'm going to say yes and no. First of all, you know, it's not a tango unless there are two people. Now, do you get to make the excuse, right, do you get to make the excuse saying, "OK, the person wasn't willing to meet me halfway, so, so I'm shutting down right now." And the answer to that is, well, no. It's, you are your own responsibility. So you still have the opportunity. Like I said, you can get up in the morning and say, "I am going to learn something. I am going to look past agreement."

BRODIE: Is there a difference, though, between being willing to look past agreement and being willing or able to look past closed-mindedness? Like, I just wonder if there's a point at which you can make the most compelling argument, the most passionate argument, the most logical, rational argument. But if the person to whom you're making it isn't listening or isn't willing to listen or consider, I would imagine there's not a whole lot you can do to change their mind or even get them to listen to you.

SCHMIDTZ: Well, let's say at very least, obviously, that's a theoretical possibility. So I do think we meet people all the time where we will say, "I think I need to cut my losses here." But I also think in our own histories we can find moments when we had to make a choice between being a write-off and being a person who still deserved to be at the table.

BRODIE: Dave Schmidtz is director of the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, which is hosting Robert George and Cornell West this evening for a virtual conversation as part of the university's Voices of Culture Lecture series. We'll post more information about the event at

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