We are like fish that are unaware of the ocean of biases in which we swim. That ocean is our culture and community heritage. We believe our thoughts are original and individual. Uncritically, and unaware, we assimilate ways of processing events that lead to herd-like responses. Like fish too, we are unaware that we are in this ocean, and so we do not examine our intellectual environment critically.
But freedom requires the ability to choose. To have choice means the one choosing is able to recognize options. And of course, it means the options are actually present if only they can be identified. Our U.S. culture speaks often with patriotic conviction to our precious political freedoms. Yet, having this freedom is only a theoretical if citizens are unable to think clearly and objectively about how to exercise those constitutional rights.
It is comforting to go through life with a model of how reality works. We need such models, but we also need to examine from time to time if the model aligns accurately with the evidence. The challenge is to look objectively at the evidence without filtering and distorting. This self-examination of our mental constructs is necessary because all of us filter and distort in some degree all the time.
Even scientific circles are captured by their own agendas to produce studies that conform to pre-conceived notions. A study must be interpreted and the data applied. Bias has many ways of entering the process. When bias overtakes science, it becomes a sort of religious intolerance known as scientism.
Test yourself the next time a hot-button topic is raised in conversation. Are you able to detach from your emotions? Are you willing to make the case for the “other side” of an issue in order to understand the merits of their argument? Are you able to listen calmly to statements you would otherwise consider threatening to a core value? Can you offer a civil and balanced response to a position you find antithetical to decency or common sense? Can you accept the possibility that your own view is wrong, or only partially correct? Are you willing to change your view if the evidence and arguments have merit?
But all these questions presuppose a readiness to engage in civil discourse with an open mind. In an age of robotic media-driven mass opinions on social, political and religious issues, that ability is in short supply. Many conversations will require you to disengage from the anger and insults often used in anonymous internet exchanges or talking head “news” programs. People are tending to mimic these polarizing attacks in their private conversations as well. Thinking people of good will must set a different standard.
This is a time for counter-cultural open-mindedness and civility in public discourse. Listening respectfully without interruption is a beginning. How boring for Fox or CNN, but how essential if we are to have a high functioning democracy of diverse views.