In the course of scrolling through a libertarian blog a few days ago, a stray sentence caught my eye. The blogger said something to the effect of “Of course, we all know that opposition to Citizens United is based on a fallacy,” before continuing to make some tangentially-related point.
“We do?” I thought. I’m politically well-versed enough to know the broad strokes of the arguments against the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on independent campaign finance spending. As I turned them over in my head, however, I couldn’t spot an obvious fallacy.
My curiosity was piqued enough that I did a bit of searching in the site’s archive to find some of the writer’s previous posts on the topic. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the arguments I found, but I was struck by them nevertheless for one particular reason: They were far more compelling than any that I could have formulated on my own.
I like to think of myself as a reasonably thoughtful and well-informed participant in American political discourse. As such, I like to think that my opinions, including my mild opposition to unregulated independent campaign spending, are born from careful consideration of all relevant perspectives. But here I was, faced with incontrovertible evidence that there was at least one compelling argument I hadn’t considered.
Given that my opinions on Citizens United hadn’t been particularly fervent to begin with, this discovery was something less than a major revelation. It did get me thinking, however, about whether my ability to argue persuasively against my own positions was underdeveloped.
It’s not hard, after all, to formulate a convincing argument on behalf of a conclusion you already accept, nor is it difficult to think of bad reasons to support a cause you oppose. Doing the opposite is a much tougher task, and it’s one I wish I attempted more often.
As college students, we’re uniquely positioned to seek out and find the arguments we’ve never heard before, the statistics with which we haven’t reckoned, the opponents whom we’ve caricatured and derided rather than engaged. And yet, I’d be willing to wager that we all spend less time challenging ourselves in this way than we do seeking to confirm what we already think.
Academics often talk about “challenging deeply-held beliefs” as one of the great benefits of a liberal education. What gets overlooked, though, is that it’s not an inevitable or automatic benefit, but only a potential one.
Perhaps once in the past it was impossible to go four years without encountering the best arguments against one’s own convictions, but if it ever was, it is no longer so. Like our Twitter feeds and our news sources, it’s perfectly possible for our academic careers to be carefully tailored to confirm the values and judgements we bring into the classroom with us.
The consequences are anything but academic. A cognitive bias which social scientists call “motive attribution asymmetry” — the belief that one’s own opinions and preferences come from noble instincts like love and altruism, while those of one’s ideological opponents come from nefarious instincts like hatred and selfishness — is hypothesized to account for intractable conflicts ranging from political stasis in the United States to bloody civil wars in the developing world.
The cure for this bias and its destructive outcomes is active self-challenging. In order to dodge the trap of tribalism which our animal nature sets for us, we must always leave room in our convictions for the possibility that we are wrong.
There are a number of possible institutional ways of encouraging this, but there are personal remedies as well. We ought to choose to mount hard challenges to our own opinions. We ought to choose to put serious effort into proving ourselves wrong. We ought to deliberately seek out the best reasons we can find to discard or modify our own beliefs.
Too often, as with myself and Citizens United, we can’t even articulate the strongest case against what we believe. Unless I can argue the best reason to support unregulated campaign finance, and can then refute it, I might be in favor of more money in politics after all. Who knows? I certainly don’t.
ALEC WARD is a College junior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. edu. Follow him on Twitter @ TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” formerly “Talking Backward,” usually appears every other Wednesday.
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