Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Reading Opposing Opinions

The discussion yesterday about James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me got me thinking about the issue of reading things one disagrees with.

In recent years, I've found myself paring back the extent to which I read people I strongly disagree with. This sounds narrow-minded, and it's difficult for me to write. It doesn't fit well with the image I have of myself as someone who is open to engaging with those with whom I disagree.

Part of the issue was that I found myself spending far too much time arguing -- either actually doing so in the comment boxes of other sites or mentally doing so in the way that I can't help rehearsing in the back of my mind when I've run into an argument that strikes me as wrong or ill-informed. However, a lot of it was that I found that reading overly ignorant or angry people who disagreed with me (I'd stopped reading those type among those with whom I agreed long ago) simply tended to make me more partisan and more angry at those who disagreed with me.

In a sense, there's a dark satisfaction in reading those who disagree with you when they do so badly -- either with ignorance of the topic or just with hate. It allows you to think that everyone who disagrees with you is like that.

However, it's certainly not the case that I don't read anyone I disagree with -- some bloggers I routinely disagree with one some or even nearly all issues remain near the top of my reader, and one of the books I just finished reading (and very much enjoyed) was Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, a book written shortly after Orwell got back from fighting for the Republicans in Spain, in which one of his main complaints against the increasingly Stalinist-dominated Republicans is that they are not far enough left.

I'm having difficulty thinking exactly what it is that separates the opposing writers that I enjoy from the ones I don't bother with. One division I think is whether they are primarily writing invective -- reading about how pro-lifers want to force women to have babies or about how banksters want to create an economic order specifically designed to keep the ordinary people down is not only unilluminating but also tedious. On the other hand, I tend to enjoy people who thoughtfully write about their experiences or who attempt to lay out clearly the way they think things ought to work, with some seeming regard for reality.


Jenny said...

I don't read as much opposing view material as I used to mainly because I find it tiring. I have a commute and a full time job and three children. I don't have the mental energy to argue with myself or others. You said tedious.

That's not to say I don't read it at all, but I am selective. At Vox Nova, I'll read Kyle's stuff because I find he has an interesting perspective and I like RadCathMom although she hardly posts anymore (I miss her), but Morning's way. I skip right over those. It is too much to ask of myself. :)

JMB said...

There used to be a morning talk show on WABC here in NY which starred Ron Kuby and Curtis Sliwa. I loved it. But what I loved most about the show was Ron Kuby, who is as liberal as they come, but he was so funny and informative that I learned a lot from him. So as long as they have a sense of humor, I'll read or listen to the opposing view.

bearing said...

I was thinking over the discussion last night about Loewen and textbooks, and I put my finger on another distinction that needs to be made.

It's not simply that the world of books, political opinions, etc. is divided into "those that disagree with me" and "those that agree with me." To simplify it to a single spectrum, among the ones that disagree with me significantly, there are those on the right and those on the left, no? And I find I can put up with differences to the left much better than I can differences to the right.

This may be because I skew somewhat towards the right, and so books to the right of me are almost by definition more likely to be extreme than books to the left of me.

Or it could be simple exposure. I'm very used to reading and engaging with left-liberal discourse because the education system I grew up in and most of the media around here steeps us in it. I feel competent to compensate for it.

Or it could be that I've deeply internalized the "right wing = extreme" narrative, from the above mentioned exposure, and I already feel subconsciously marginalized by my position on the spectrum, and so to seem more moderate I automatically reject association with those farther-right than I am, while demonstrating my normalcy by engaging as much as possible with those to the left of me.

But whatever the reason, I am not as good at suffering people who are more conservative than I am than I am at suffering people who are more liberal than I am (assuming a large enough ideological difference).

Maybe it's just a matter of personal taste.

Kyle Cupp said...

I always appreciate your disagreements with me, Darwin.

Darwin said...

I tend to have different filtering processes with those I in some sense classify as being "on my side" -- in that realm I've never had much time for those I think are being ignorant or simply peddling in invective.

I suppose to a great extent my recent dialing down has been an exercise in applying the same standards to what I bother to read by people on "the other side" that I've for some time applied to those on "my side".

Darwin said...

And Journeys In Alternity is right at the top of my reader, Kyle.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy _This American Life_ (when I get the rare chance) for just this reason. It's thoughtful and sincere. I can respect it without needing to agree with every little thing.


That said, one thing it is unpopular to admit these days is that our minds are designed to learn from what what we see and hear. Choosing not to watch or read or listen is a legitimate way to keep stupid ideas from sinking in and taking hold.

There's a very trendy sort of pride in insisting that one is somehow immune to outside influences. As if modern, cosmopolitan people have a special sort of non-learning brain that is utterly different from the ones studied by scientists and advertisers.

Brandon said...

I think I tend to judge such matters based on how constant it is more than on agreement or disagreement; it's not agreement or disagreement that matters to me so much as whether one ever gives things a rest. It astounds me that some people can have such a monotonous life that they end up ranting about the same thing over and over and over....Although I do wonder, having said that, how much of this is just a sort of indirect self-justification, since I go through cycles myself (especially my sense of humor, which swings between mildly acetic and concentrated carbolic); so, naturally, giving myself a pass, I tend to go easier on people who seem like me.

I think, though, that there is less to be said for reading people one disagrees with than we usually think. It's good, of course, to expose oneself to different views and seeing how the opposing side looks at things, but I'm not really convinced that this is what most of us are doing most of the time when we read people we disagree with. Reading people one disagrees with is harder than it sounds; we can be literate in the general language but not literate in other people's patterns of argument. Unless the person in question is nearly an alter ego -- thinks very much like you but just happens to be on the other side -- it takes a lot more work even to see the point than most of us are usually willing to admit.

Donald R. McClarey said...

In regard to Orwell he was a writer of genius, and a severe critic of his side, the Left. It is rare to find such a combination of good writing and exacting honesty and I have always treasured reading him.

I enjoy reading those I disagree with if they write with style and present compelling arguments. If someone is merely recycling old hat arguments and doing so in a clumsy, plodding manner I tend to pass them by, whether I disagree or agree with them. Life is too short to waste on people making bad arguments badly. I have to endure quite enough of that in my legal practice!

Anonymous said...

I am interested in well-argued, non-insulting positions that help me refine my own positions.

But I am not interested in being insulted. I have gotten to the point where I stop reading novels where the descriptions "Republican" and "conservative" are used as shorthand to denote characters who are bad, unlikeable, or evil.