For decades, research has consistently found that Republicans and Democrats alike imagine that the gap between their own opinions and those of their political opponents is wider than it is.
A new study by social scientists at the international initiative "More in Common" notes that this “perception gap” persists, and that partisans on both sides of the aisle significantly overestimate the extent of extremism in the opposing party.
The more partisan the thinker, the more distorted the other side appears.
How can we bridge this gap?
It would be nice to think that the answer is more information, either by way of a broader education or at least a more ample and sophisticated news diet. But here again social scientists reach a surprising conclusion. Having more information from the news media is associated with a less accurate understanding of political opponents. The problem, according to the authors of the "Perception Gap" study, appears to be particularly acute when it comes to liberals with postgraduate degrees.
While education is not associated with negative personal feelings toward ideological opponents for right-of-center thinkers, it is for those on the left. And liberals with postgraduate degrees are most afflicted with what psychologists refer to as “affective polarization” — hostile feelings toward people of the opposing political party.
The discrepancy in the effect of education is likely due to the proportion of left- and right-leaning professors and administrators on campus. As political scientist Sam Abrams found, the average left to right ratio of professors nationwide is 6 to 1 and the ratio of student-facing administrators is 12 to 1.
As a result, conservatives and other non-liberals on campus necessarily interact with liberal professors and administrators all the time. But there aren’t many similar opportunities for those on the left to gain a nuanced understanding of their ideological opponents or the views they hold.
Nor is there much chance for students to watch professors model cross-partisan friendship or friendly disagreement. On campus, civil discourse between ideological opponents is hard enough to find because of the lack of viewpoint diversity. But it is made even more difficult because many students and professors are unwilling to disclose their unpopular political views out of fear of negative repercussions.
All of this suggest that the way to close the perception gap is to expose people to a more intellectually diverse set of views. Newspaper op-ed pages can do this by hiring — and fiercely protecting — columnists whose views don't square with those of the majority of their readers. Think tanks, which often follow a certain ideological bent, can hire scholars who see things differently and are willing to amicably challenge the conclusions of their colleagues.
But nowhere is the need for contrarians and gadflies more urgent than in higher education — in the very institutions that were once supposed to protect unpopular thinkers while exposing students to uncomfortable ideas. Thanks to the emergence of what is now called “cancel culture,” however, faculty and visiting speakers are targeted for opposing prevailing campus orthodoxy.
Consider recent examples: Ronald Sullivan, the Harvard law professor, whose position as dean of an undergraduate residential college was terminated this spring because students complained that his representation of Harvey Weinstein made them “feel unsafe”; Allison Stanger, the political scientist at Middlebury who was physically assaulted by students for her discussion with libertarian scholar Charles Murray; Bret Weinstein, the Evergreen State College biologist who was hounded from his position for opposing a racially designated “day of absence” from campus.
What these and similar cases have in common isn’t the political leanings of the ostracized faculty members (though many of them are, to one degree or another, politically liberal). It is the apparent inability of their accusers to accept that other points of view should be entertained and discussed on campus, much less accepted as valid perspectives.
That inability is a function of an ideological monoculture in which the concept of sharp yet productive and civil disagreement is largely absent. As mathematician Eric Weinstein (Bret Weinstein’s brother) has noted, this isn’t just a case of groupthink. It's also a matter of what he calls “groupfeel,” the tendency to allow our emotions to be governed by prevailing moods.
In cancel culture, the moods are outrage and offense. Groupfeel underlies the belief that any view that runs contrary to the dominant group’s moral code in and of itself makes people “unsafe,” that the mere presence on campus of people who hold “problematic” views is “harmful,” that words are violence.
Groupfeel is not a problem unique to universities or to the political left. It can keep us all comfortably cloistered in our separate tribes and prevent us from embracing our common humanity. Progress and paradigm shifts require a disruption of groupfeel’s emotional trance. The role of gadflies is to break that trance.
In their own time, gadflies are unpopular with those who rely on groupfeel to maintain their cultural hold. But gadflies can become some of our most inspirational figures.
Galileo, the progenitor of modern astronomy, was convicted of heresy and spent the final years of his life under house arrest for contravening the groupfeel regarding the movement of the sun and earth. Roughly 300 years later, a high school teacher named John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for violating a Tennessee state law and the associated groupfeel that prohibited teaching evolution. In 1963, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King refused to allow the groupfeel of the era to act as “a tranquilizing thalidomide.”
In breaking the trance of groupfeel, gadflies annoy and upset those in power. Their sting is in the service of truth, but at a time when even the idea of “truth” is under attack — on the far right from claims of “fake news” and on the far left from subjective “lived experience” replacing objective data — our gadflies seem to be having a hard time doing their job.
We have forgotten that our ideological opponents are not our enemies. As the evidence continues to reveal, we have more in common than we think. But if we kill our gadflies, we’ll keep hating each other too much to see it.
Pamela Paresky, PhD is Senior Scholar in Human Development and Psychology at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) where she served as chief researcher and in-house editor for "The Coddling of the American Mind." She also directs the Aspen Center for Human Development, authored the guided journal "A Year of Kindness," writes for PsychologyToday.com, and has also written for The Guardian and Quillette. Her opinions should not be considered official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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