Intellectual Empathy and Overcoming Disagreement

Now that we have passed the high point in the American political cycle and quickly headed into the holiday season, it’s time to think about repairing the political fissures with our friends and families.  Over the past few years, concerns about the polarization of political life have grown considerably.  Pew Research noted this past spring that polarization has increased, and while the intense campaign season skews perceptions—the point right now is winning, after all—it’s hard to shake the impression that Americans of various political persuasions find themselves a long ways apart.

Of course, “polarization” and its variations are not mere descriptors:  they inevitably carry a sense of judgment, a sense that the current state of affairs simply can’t continue.  The instinctive objection to polarization is understandable:  getting along together is one of those kindergarten rules that we were all supposed to have learned.

But therein lies the problem.  As a term, “polarization” conceals more than its critics often let on.  There is nothing intrinsically problematic about approaching politics from two different poles, two fundamentally different standpoints.  That is simply a fancy name for “disagreement,” which is one of those quirky human phenomena that make life interesting.  As Bruce Thornton pointed out while audaciously (or not) praising polarization, it isn’t “a political dysfunction, but rather the sign that free Americans take their fundamental political ideals seriously.”

Still, were our democratic discourse limited to mere disagreement over fundamental visions, I suspect there would be far less hand-wringing over our current atmosphere.  The real problem seems to be that people are uncertain about what to do with our disagreements, how to open and conduct conversations across the aisle without sacrificing our core convictions.

That sort of dialogue is easier praised than practiced, which is why it is very frequently talked about and only rarely implemented.  When it comes down to it, then if the two visions of the world are “fundamentally” different, some sort of translation has to go on.  When the differences in outlook go all the way down, then it can be a struggle to find the sort of common concepts and terms that allow a fruitful discussion to go forward.  And if the “first things” of our framework are really at stake, then it can be easy to slip into a belligerent defense rather than entering into open inquiry.

The paradox, though, is that the more confident we are in our foundations, the more easily we can temporarily suspend them in a conversation to see whether they turn out to be true.  Confidence, like all virtues, has its false and distorted approximations.  And the reactionary, hand-wringing subcurrent of the American conservative movement actually sounds more like intellectual anxiety than anything else.  To twist around a Teddy Roosevelt line, conservatives who are confident in their positions will be able to speak softly precisely because they carry a big intellectual stick.

That frames our role in such a dialogue negatively, in terms of defense.  And sometimes, defense is precisely what is called for.  As Chesterton pointed out, there are thoughts that stop thought—and they deserve a good dose of satire and probably even intellectual scorn.  But for most issues, politics is not such an arena.  There can be no common good if there is no interest in cultivating common ground.  While we may start our expeditions from two separate poles, there is something to be said for meeting to explore the terrain together.  A social order where people are able to speak together isn’t the only good we should seek, but it is a good.No Common Good

One way to cultivate such common ground in our own local communities is through what some of called “intellectual empathy,” or the decision to enter into a person’s way of the seeing the world and look along with them.  It is, in a sense, an imaginative exercise that goes beyond the “willing suspension of disbelief” toward the granting of principles and premises that we may very well like to reject in order to see how the whole framework holds together—if the whole framework holds together.  Intellectual empathy is a form of seeing how.  As in, “Oh, I see how you could think that.  It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.”  It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede.

Like all virtues, intellectual empathy needs some sharp edges to be of much use.  For just as ‘compassion’ can become a sort of loose affection disconnected from a normative order of goods, so too the intellectual good of empathizing and understanding can be disconnected from pursuit of both people’s good of discovering and affirming what is true.  Still, when the gap between outlooks is so wide, it is easy to skip the empathizing and move straight into the work of objecting and persuading.

But lest there be any confusion, let me reiterate that I am not suggesting we should give up our first principles or revise them in our imaginative exercising.  If anything, the opposite.  It is precisely because of our confidence that we are able to enter in to how others see the world, with the freedom to explore along with them and see what they see.  And for the more mercenarily minded, the cultivation of intellectual empathy has the additional effect of helping us find inconsistencies and difficulties internal to their accounts of the world that may make persuasion easier.  Again, that should be a byproduct and never the intention.  But it is a byproduct that deserves at least a mention.

Two final points, then I’ll be done.  First, there is a sort of intellectual fruitfulness that occurs as a result of entering into this sort of imaginative dialectical inquiry.  When our first principles are questioned, we are forced to find innovative and interesting ways within other people’s frameworks to make the case for our beliefs.  As Robert Spaemann has noted, “Even ‘axiomatic beliefs’ need justifying in the long run if they face a challenge.”  And finding new justifications for those beliefs can help us find new, more creative ways of making our case persuasively.  We may or may not be successful, but as an exercise it brings about nothing but good.

What’s more, such a process can be enormously helpful in the place we need it most:  at the dinner table, over our Thanksgiving meals.  As Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out, beliefs are bound together:  the isolated propositions we come across are only fragments of a mutually interlocking system of beliefs, a system that must be explored for the proposition to be appropriately understood.  Viewed that way, disagreement takes on a different tone:  rather than merely objecting to a point, we “begin to accompany [our interlocutor] as [we] challenge him and question him,” discovering not only more clearly where our disagreement lies but also finding new and potentially surprising moments of concord.

This sort of concord may be hard to reach on a national scale (though we ought not rule it out simply because it is difficult).  But in the conversations we have the next few weeks and beyond, demonstrating empathy for another person’s outlook may be just the sort of diffuser that we need to break through a frequently wearying, rarely productive intellectual gridlock.

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  • Isaac Wiegman

    I like most of what you said, but I think you misunderstand what polarization portends. It means that our tribal instincts are taking over our political discourse. It means that in the mind of either side, there is “us” and there is “them” and there is a set of beliefs that determine group identity. Moreover, these group identities are emotionally entangled. To either group, the other is anathema and reasoned discourse becomes impossible precisely because certain beliefs and values are marks of loyalty and commitment to the group. That is why people who change their mind or do not tow the party line are labelled “spineless flipfloppers” rather than people who are just trying to respond to good reasons. It’s not as if either party platform is a cluster of ideologies that strongly cohere (e.g. one can believe in “free” markets and freedom to “choose”; they aren’t necessarily in opposition for any deep ideological reasons, since libertarians are inclined toward both). Rather, they constitute the sets of beliefs that as a matter of contingent historical course have been adopted by Dems and Reps. Lack of intellectual empathy is just a symptom of the disease. I’m glad you’re a fan of it, but it still sounds to me like you’re thinking in terms of “us and them”. Developing intellectual empathy sounds to me like a good idea, but to get to the root of this polarization, I think some deeper change needs to take place. We all need to stop thinking in terms of “the opposition” or “them” or “the other”. We need to stop thinking as if “…there are just two kinds of people, Democrats and Republicans”. We need to stop treating political ideologies as marks of loyalty to “us” or to “those who think well and rightly”. It’s only marginally possible to have reasoned discourse if one’s ultimate reason for believing something has more to do with loyalty than truth, but I think that’s a big part of what makes artificial political divides seem so real and inviolable. That’s my rant anyway.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Isaac,

      Truly a rant in which there is no guile! More of this, please! : )

      I’ve more to say on all this, but I do think that sometimes people change their minds for good reasons….and sometimes they’re spineless flip-floppers! And I actually don’t think that we have to reject the “us and them” dichotomy *within the frame* of visions for American future that make the parties different. Unless you want to end political parties altogether, that is, which I don’t see as either tenable or even necessarily as good. The point of “intellectual empathy” is that it presupposes difference and disagreement, and like it or not such difference often takes a sociological (as opposed to strictly intellectual) form.

      Which is to say, the point of this post is to make space for such differences without necessarily saying that we have to overcome them for discourse to go forward. I don’t think that’s misunderstanding what polarization portends, as much as trying to solve it at the level that it actually needs to be solved at.

      matt

      • Isaac Wiegman

        I don’t want to end parties altogether, but it would be a step in the right direction to have more than two parties being well represented in our governing bodies.

        My complaint isn’t that we should “overcome differences”. I’m pretty okay with differences and disagreements, when they can be negotiated with reason and grace. Rather, the problem is that American politics lends itself to tribal thinking (the two party system being a plausible factor and campaign tactics another). As a byproduct of our tribal mentality we are inclined to see liberals and conservatives as different kinds of people (they are not), and we are inclined to see opposing ideas as threats to ourselves and our group (they are not). These inaccurate perceptions (or construals?) aren’t so much the source of our differences and disagreements as they are the source of the emotional entanglements that attend them. Maybe intellectual empathy can mitigate the vexed nature of these differences, but I’m not sure that it will undo the destructive ways in which we construe ourselves in relation to our family, friends and neighbors who have different political beliefs from us. Yes, empathy has to presuppose difference and disagreement, but it doesn’t have to presuppose differences in kind or disagreements that are threats. Why do you think it’s necessary or important to think in terms of us and them? Do you think it would be necessary even if it leads to these inaccurate perceptions?

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Isaac,

          I suggested that the “us versus them” is narrowed to precisely the point where I think we agree, namely that “our *beliefs*” are opposed to “their *beliefs.” That’s a different claim than that we are opposed to them as people, which I wouldn’t agree with, or that their group is opposed to our group. But as I tried to get at, in a plural democracy such intellectual disagreements actually do become embedded in various social institutions, and currently our public speech has the form of *competition* rather than dialogue. I’m not totally convinced it’s never been this way or that it’s never been that way, in fact, much as we might want a sort of purist Socratic dialogue free from such subrational forces! But the only thing that I’m trying to hold on to here is that intellectual empathy need not preclude intellectual opposition. At least not obviously, anyway. And intellectual opposition, which might look and sound like an “us/them” relationship, need not necessarily be the sort of degraded polarization where we look on others as different types of people, which is your concern. I don’t see a reason to collapse all those together or say that necessarily one leads to the others.

          matt

          • Isaac Wiegman

            Perhaps we are agreed, perhaps not. Why think of it in terms of “their belief” when you could just think of it as “the belief that…”? After all, these discussions shouldn’t be about them or us, they should be about whether the beliefs are true or not. Notice that throughout this conversation I have studiously avoided casting you, who believe differently, as my opponent or as the other. It wasn’t actually that hard. In any case, I insist that intellectual empathy needs supplementation: infrequently monitoring the way I think about those with whom I disagree, lest I slip into tribalism and condemn my interlocutor to otherness.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Why depersonalize the conversation that way? It is *their belief that.* If you think that the only way to have a productive conversation is by removing all the people from it by only referencing beliefs that have been totally abstracted, then we are going to disagree. Also, it’s going to be hard to see what role *empathy* is going to play, given that I’ve described it above as a personally oriented virtue (“Oh, I can see how *you* would think that…”)

            I am more optimistic that we can still act like humans, and not robots, and talk with each other about the beliefs we actually hold.

            Best,

            Matt

          • Isaac Wiegman

            Matt,
            I don’t think my view implies depersonalization of the conversation. Rather, I think conversations can be more like a dance and less like a war when they are less ego-involving (both are relational interactions between persons). I can still try and see why you think the way that you do, without thinking of that set of beliefs as somehow closely connected with your identity or their negation as somehow closely connected with mine. Empathy is still possible. I really can see why you think what you think. If I’m in a conversation with someone whose identity is closely connected with their beliefs, I might even be able to see how it could be difficult for them to think differently because of how it would impact their identity or loyalty to a party. But none of this require that I think of the beliefs in question as “yours” (in the way that I’m vaguely gesturing at) or “mine”.

            Actually, I’m not so worried about hostility as otherness, which is compatible with hostility, contempt, dismissiveness and probably a lot of other negative (and sometimes even dehumanizing) attitudes. In my experience, people tend to think of the other with a lack of charity that can manifest itself in many of these ways. There’s a big psychological literature on coalitional psychology, that I’m not super familiar with. From what little I’ve seen, it confirms my experience. (But when you’re human, most things do ;)

            Lovin it,
            Isaac

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Couple things: (a) It’s true that the predication of “yours” with respect to beliefs is problematic, if we are discussing their truthfulness or falsity. I don’t want to minimize that. (I have lots of thoughts about how that plays out in copyright law, etc. these days!). (b) Empathy seems to be a person-directed virtue, in any circumstances. That’s why I’m fine not being a semantic legalist and demanding that we eradicate all second-person pronouns from our public discourse. (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?!) : ) (c) Otherness also makes love possible. Dispositionally, I’d rather take the possibility of negative attitudes on grounds that they are only bastardized imitations of the good than take away the possibility of the good altogether.

            matt

          • Isaac Wiegman

            I see that acknowledging difference is important to you. Me too! I also agree that empathy is a person-directed virtue. My conception of “otherness” is probably a bit different than yours. In any case, the point I’m trying to make isn’t just about semantics but about the way that I think about and relate to other people, people who really are distinct and different from me, but who I refuse to allow myself to condemn to the tribal category of the other.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            If “otherness” is necessarily negative, and if all distinctions between “us/them” are necessarily indicative of making someone into an “other” in that necessarily negative sense, then I am opposed to “othering” people. : )

            But I guess I’m confused about how someone can read the above and come away with the idea that I’m “condemning” people to the “tribal category of the other.” Unless there’s just layers here that I’m too dense to grasp (which is probably true).

            Matt

          • Isaac Wiegman

            Perhaps it was a lack of intellectual empathy.

          • Isaac Wiegman

            Or perhaps I “othered” you without realizing it.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            You win for awesomeness. Oh wait–there’s no winning here! : )

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Also, to be candid, it seems like you’re presupposing that any us/them distinction is necessarily a hostile one. I’d like to see some justification for that, frankly, as I don’t buy it. But I’m not sure the pressure you’re trying to put on me here actually goes forward without it.

  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    I love the phrase “intellectual empathy.”

    Perhaps part of the problem is that there are so many issues all bundled together. Taken one at a time, we could dialogue about them. But there’s sadly little scope for understanding in a debate over economic-theory+foreign-policy+gay-marriage+marijuana+education+abortion+health-care+social-security.

    Is it possible to completely agree or agree with even one person on all of those issues at once?

    Intellectual empathy can only happen one issue at a time, but unfortunately, that’s not the way party politics works… :/

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I’m not sure we need to collapse every issue together that way for the discussion to go forward. One could have a party affiliation, I think, and even be a partisan of a sort (i.e. think that parties are the best way to get things done) without having the sort of totalizing rejection of the other person’s positions of that sort. At least, that’s the idea.

      • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

        Definitely! The problem isn’t parties per se, but the ensuing stereotypes that keep us from really talking to one another. But it doesn’t have to be that way! =)

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    This approach to “intellectual empathy” is spot on. I think achieving it will become increasingly difficult because it requires a level of imagination that we are not cultivating as a society. The capacity to imagine, to enter into (or as you put it, to suspend disbelief of) another person’s process is in many ways akin to entering a parallel reality where the rules of your own world do not exist.

    In his own colloquial way, my dad taught me that the most significant way to break the command to love your neighbor was not to think badly of him– it is to not think of him at all. Empathy, whether intellectual, emotional, or financial, is rooted in this ability to imagine what another person is experiencing.

  • http://twitter.com/christena_c Christena Cleveland

    I appreciate this. The idea of accompanying those with whom we disagree on their intellectual path implies a humility that would serve intellectual discourse well. Imagine taking the posture of walking a step behind, allowing the other to “teach” us what us think we already know. Powerful exhortation.

    I recently wrote about the perspective divergence that occurs as a result of group polarization and ways to overcome via perspective-taking. Similar take, different situation. http://www.christenacleveland.com/2012/06/overcoming-divisions-one-mile-at-a-time/

  • Dave

    “It is precisely because of our confidence that we are able to enter in to how others see the world, with the freedom to explore along with them and see what they see.”
    Yeah, true stuff. It is, after all, how great philosophers nearly always persuade their readers of the rightness of their views. Plato was a master at doing this. (Or Socrates, or his avatar in the dialogues. Whichever.)

  • Fernando Sánchez Amillategui

    Good morning, Mr. Anderson. I am writing you together with Boris Porena (www.borisporena.blogspot.com). We reached your entry through the reference provided by the Daily Dish. Mr Porena, a italo-german philosopher of culture and composer, has been writing 40 years exactly about the same issue. What you call “intellectual empathy”, he has defined as “Metacultural Hypothesis”, a hypothesis about how to overcome the cultural clashes that menace our survival as species. And he has developed this hypothesis in a series of essays (originally written in Italian, now we are starting translation in other languages), from 1975 till today. Moreover, together with a small but influential Center, he has applied this hypothesis in a variety of practical settings, pedagogical (with small kids, with ‘uneducated’ people) and political. ‘Impromptu’ I have orally translated your piece to him, in front of his fireplace, at Cantalupo in Sabina, 50 kms north of Rome, and he has been absolutely delighted with it, and asked me to write these two lines, to tell you how pleased he is to see that the same way of thinking, or ‘thought style’, as he call it, is developing synchronically at different places in the world. What you call “interlocking system of beliefs” is called by Porena “Local Cultural Universe” (LCU), an imaginary entity which condenses a sum of cultural units acquired through our experience. And what you call “concord”, Porena calls “convergence”, and one of the explicit goals of his work has been to search for these convergences as a tool for peace.

    A very synthetic expression of the Metacultural Hypothesis is the following “Given any proposition, we can build [mentally] a Local Cultural Universe where this proposition is true”. Pragmatically this can be translated exactly into the method you seem to propose: the availability to enter, if only momentarily, into other people’s perceptions and positions, in order to better understand each other, in order to ‘modulate’ our thought with the other person’s thoughts, and viceversa.

    Again thanks on behalf of Mr Porena. It’s been a pleasure to know your work, and we’ll certainly follow it.

  • Caleb W

    Kind of ironic to find this article on a site called “Mere Orthodoxy”.
    One way to solve this problem, for Christians, would be to allow people we disagree with into our conferences. We need to avoid what is now common – the appearence of ‘panels’ where you get a bunch of pastors who agree with each other piling on ‘liberals’, ‘feminists’, ‘theistic evolutionists’ and anyone else they don’t like in front of an audience that agrees with them. This happens far too often.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Why is this ironic, out of curiosity?

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  • Deborah Good

    Interesting discussion!
    I like to think that holy empathy is what Jesus, God with Us, did, 2000 or so years ago. He came down empathizing, to the point of living like us. He had practice empathizing with his mother, who appeared to be single and unwed when she had him. Perhaps, this is why he had a tender heart for immoral women, yet without encouraging their immorality, and instead calling them out of it. He must have also realized what his dad may have suffered as well. He also at some point must have heard about the slaughter of the innocents meant for him. What impact might that have had on his thinking? And his cousin growing up with older parents, and then on his own in the wilderness.
    To avoid the us/them sort of thinking, others have helped me realize that we are all fallen sinners in need of grace, with our own self-deceptions and blind spots and proclivities to sin, and God cares more about whether our hearts are His, than whether we are doing “good” activities, or have perfect theology or political views. As we seek Him and His Kingdom first, He will surely correct those over time, as His Spirit leads and guides us into all truth, and He wants us to love Him with our whole selves, and our neighbors after that.
    Love for my neighbor might mean I want them to see things the way I do, as I may feel it would be best for them. So, if my method of speaking or offering unsolicited advice is getting in the way, perhaps God wants me to change my method.
    When I remember these things, I can be more gracious to others and listen to their ideas without feeling threatened.
    It becomes harder, if they don’t see me that way, and then humbling myself is in order, and sometimes hard to do, without sacrificing principle. I think then, I have to hold to the truth, and remember love is more than what I say, and the most important principle of all, per The Shemaah (sp?) and I Cor. 13. This is really what Jesus did around the Pharisees, offering truth,- even stringently, and grace as well. (Note the encounters with Simon, Nicodemus, and his speeches, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which says to love one’s enemies as does the Father in Heaven, and as he went willingly to the cross, to live out that love
    . I certainly don’t do any of this perfectly, but this discussion reminds me. It also helps if I stay patient. Sometimes after saying the same thing for many years, and not feeling heard, I proclaim it way too loudly. I don’t think Jesus would do that. He hasn’t yelled at me.

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