For anyone who pays attention to the news, it’s hard to go a day without hearing about how difficult it’s become to engage in productive dialogue with others across ideological boundaries. The lament may be bordering on cliché, but it also happens to be true.
We are living through an intense period of polarization, which encourages us to interpret disagreements as taking place between two groups, each of cartoonish simplicity: “us” (the right thinking) and “them” (the wrong thinking). Fear and, increasingly, a kind of paranoia cause us to attempt to hastily identify participants in debates as belonging to one or the other side of this simplistic binary. In this context, when people disagree with us, it’s not because they might be seeing something differently than we do or assigning more weight to one aspect of a problem than we are; it is because they are one of “them.” We listen to and engage with only those we deem right thinking and ignore and marginalize those we deem wrong thinking.
Robert Talisse has suggested that polarization is a product, in part, of group identity and social signaling. That is, we crave recognition and affirmation from those on our side, and so when we become convinced that our group holds a view—whoever “our group” is—we are likely to adopt it ourselves. Since we want to fit in and impress our peers, we manifest or express a more extreme form of our views. This increasing extremism goes hand in hand with unwarranted confidence in the rightness of our views. In such an environment, changing our mind about an issue that is important to the group may feel like committing an act of treachery—a violation of allegiance to the team. Consequently, it has become incredibly difficult to engage in productive conversations where we can persuade one another across the boundary of “us” and “them.”
What can we do about this situation? How can we disrupt this binary thinking, diffuse polarization and open a space for productive dialogue and persuasion? One possible way forward may be to call attention to the diversity of beliefs within groups or traditions. The groups and traditions to which we belong—political, economic, racial, ethnic, religious—are almost never homogeneous in their beliefs. If we can help people to see public debates as debates within their own community as well as between communities, then they may start to see that allegiance to their team can’t determine the position they “should” take.
When individuals become aware that their community is more heterogeneous than they originally thought, they will be freer to entertain and explore a variety of views without feeling like they are committing an act of treason. Recognizing diversity along these lines can create space for individuals to countenance the views of others and to think through their own beliefs rather than reflexively taking what they perceive to be the party line.
For the purposes of illustration, imagine you are trying to persuade a conservative evangelical Christian to adopt a progressive policy, say on immigration or abortion. Despite “evangelical” now being almost synonymous in the public mind with “Trump supporter,” it would be a mistake to approach your interlocutor as part of a monolithic group, a “them,” who all think the same way—not only because it is false, but because it would encourage an “us vs. them” framing. And once binary framing is accepted, it can be difficult to engage in productive conversation, much less persuasion. Instead, engaging with and emphasizing the diversity of evangelical commitments both in the present and historically may disrupt binary thinking and open a space for productive dialogue and reflection.
In fact, there is less political homogeneity among evangelicals than one might think. For instance, 56% of evangelicals are Republican or lean Republican, but 28% are Democrats or lean Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center. Today it is easy to forget that President Carter, a Democrat, called himself a “born-again” Christian, i.e., evangelical. Historically, evangelicals have often led or been involved in progressive political reforms, from abolition (in both England and America) to the Social Gospel movement.
With this as background, perhaps it is less surprising that while 68% of white evangelicals say that the United States does not have a responsibility to accept refugees, the majority of evangelicals (including white evangelicals) support a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the United States “illegally” (61%) or are “undocumented” (55%). Indeed, the Evangelical Immigration Table, an evangelical coalition that advocates for a bipartisan solution to the immigration stalemate, petitioned President Trump to release ICE detainees during the pandemic.
Similarly, 63% of evangelicals think that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, but 33% believe it should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew. Moreover, despite popular perception, when evangelicals are asked to rank their political priorities, abortion is often not at the top of the list. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian and professor at Calvin University, has noted that historically evangelicals have been open to a range of views on abortion. In 1973, The Baptist Press, run by the Southern Baptist Convention, even ran an op-ed lauding the Roe v. Wade ruling that year for advancing “religious liberty, human equality and justice.”
As Scott McConnell, the executive director of Lifeway Research—which frequently polls evangelicals—has observed, “Evangelical religious beliefs by themselves do not explain political behavior.” This is just another way of saying that there’s more than one way to be an evangelical. And if you’re trying to persuade one, it would be a mistake to ignore this fact.
Arguments that reveal the heterogeneity of your interlocutor’s own group can disrupt binary thinking and put your interlocutor in a position where she could change her mind without feeling like she’s abandoning her team. When that happens, the various debates about controversial subjects can no longer be settled by tribal loyalty. Instead, individuals can explore which arguments they find most compelling—from whatever quarter.
This way of engaging with others is useful in innumerable debates. Want to persuade conservatives that they shouldn’t uncritically support capitalism? Why not point to the conservative G. K. Chesterton’s criticism of capitalism? A colleague thinks that socialism is anti-Christian? Why not give Christian socialist Cornel West a whirl? Know someone who thinks that progressive activism requires being “woke”? Has that person heard former President Obama’s criticism of woke Manichaeism? Debating with someone who regards any argument against the current iteration of “anti-racism” as fundamentally anti-progressive? Perhaps progressive but heterodox anti-racists like Chloé Valdary or Maria Dixon Hall will change that person’s mind.
If you want to change minds, introduce diversity of thought. Once individuals perceive the heterogeneity of the groups and traditions to which they feel allegiance, they will be freer to hear arguments from multiple perspectives and to reconsider their own views in light of those arguments. They will be less likely to view the debate as a simple, binary us vs. them, where breaking rank is a kind of treachery or risks a loss of identity. Engaging with one another on the basis of intellectual diversity requires a great deal of us as citizens—it requires learning about those who differ from us ideologically. But since the alternative is the continued devolution of our public discourse, trying this method of engagement is worth the effort.