Consider three individuals: a terrorist, whose indoctrination and violent actions result from a constant reminder throughout his upbringing of Western injustices and transgressions; a slavery apologist, who lives in the antebellum South, and validates his ideals by the norms and conventions of the time; an American who supports gun control, Keynesian economics and a woman’s right to an abortion, but developed these beliefs solely through having friends and family affirm the “moral correctness” of these notions.
These narratives reflect radically different situations and consequences, but share a fundamental characteristic. By no means am I suggesting that the third individual espouses an immoral ideology. But, like the first two scenarios, the final anecdote highlights opinions that dangerously formed as a result of homogenous bubbles. And until recently, I could more or less be defined by these attributes. However, over time, I’ve realized that this mode of thinking yields three serious problems.
Firstly, a failure to challenge assumptions inhibits a society from moral improvement. Adopting a phrase from abolitionist Theodore Parker, former President Obama often asserts, “The arc of moral history is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, this statement cannot be true if we complacently uphold the norms of the period in which we live. Can you imagine a world in which no one challenged the institution of slavery in 19th century America? Can you picture a society in which the use of duels to settle relatively innocuous arguments remained unquestioned? In order for moral history to approach justice, we must bend it that way ourselves.
This does not necessarily mean that modern conceptions of morality are incorrect. That being said, assessing their accuracy proves impossible without perpetual skepticism. The modern consensus on a certain moral issue is simply the most convincing claim and refutation to a previously held assertion that has come along so far. Tomorrow, a new perspective may surface that shatters our previously held beliefs all over again.
Secondly, an inability to critically and thoughtfully defend against points that yield alternative ideologies does a disservice to personal perspectives. Pundits like Tomi Lahren, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos highlight this problem. Lahren has repeatedly conflated the Black Lives Matter movement with the Ku Klux Klan. Shapiro has vehemently denied the existence of white privilege in American society. And Milo (oh boy, here we go) has referred to transgender individuals as mentally disabled, made comments rooted in anti-Semitism, asserted that gay rights run counter to the development of humanity and even bizarrely described the recent remake of “Ghostbusters” starring females as “a movie to help lonely middle-aged women feel better about being left on the shelf.”
While immediately writing off such viewpoints as disgusting remains tempting, a willingness to engage with them proves imperative. These are all intelligent people, who substantiate their claims with facts and logical cogency. I’ve watched a debate in which Lahren and Shapiro decimate an educated liberal because of a previous unwillingness to engage with them, which inevitably results in an inability to anticipate their arguments. Even more tragic was the outbreak of violence that resulted from Milo’s scheduled speech at University of California at Berkeley. Such instances only empower and enhance ideologies that may prove inherently close-minded and discriminatory.
Finally, the liberal echo chamber runs the risk of disparaging individuals, who have ostensibly toxic viewpoints but for understandable reasons. The brutal division brought on by Donald Trump’s candidacy highlights this phenomenon. During election season, many coastal liberals increasingly dismissed Trump supporters as racists and bigots or as Hillary Clinton asserted during her campaign, “a basket of deplorables.” How true is this proclamation though?
Testing it remains virtually impossible without a willingness to engage with Trump supporters. What has become widely considered the book of this past election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy describes the plight of the disaffected white working class. By no means are the characters in his work racists or bigots. They represent a group that believe American institutions work against them and seek deep systemic change as a result. Individuals like these and their problems with governing structures can garner much sympathy from liberals across the board. Of course, this concern can only be evoked through understanding and compassion, not vilification.
To overcome the echo chamber by which we are trapped, engagement and openness to differing perspectives remains paramount. For every New York Times article, read a piece from the Wall Street Journal. For every Washington Post op-ed, read something from the National Review. Go out of your way to frequently engage with people who disagree on issues that remain important to you. (Mark Zuckerberg models this push in his new movement to meet someone from every state by the end of the year.) To the best of your ability, keep the conversation civil. You can always learn from those who disagree even if the primary lesson is a further confirmation of your own beliefs.
I sincerely hope that tactics like these become more wholeheartedly adopted at Penn. For, in so much of the discourse I encounter, echoes are all that I hear.
BEN GARGANO is a College junior from New York studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.