The Power of Skepticism and Detachment in Political Dialogue

Maybe this has happened to you: your friend posts something political on Facebook. Another friend responds, disagreeing. A game of point-counterpoint ensues and quickly spirals out of control, leading to an increasingly unfriendly discussion, name-calling or demonization. Hours are spent arguing without any fruitful conversation taking place. Some threads even end friendships.

People feel strongly about politics. This makes sense: when we think that society should be governed a certain way, we invest personally and emotionally in that outlook. If we care enough about a particular issue, personal identity can become wrapped up in it, making it easier to relate to others who share similar beliefs and difficult to interact with those who don’t

The gut reaction that lurches up when encountering different opinions is normal. But the emotions underlying that automatic impulse insulate us from new ideas, and minimize our ability to openly consider new information that could influence how we perceive the world. No one likes realizing that they may be incorrect. However, if you were to ask someone whether they’d prefer to either continue holding a false position or deal with the temporary emotional injury in order to discover the correct one, they would probably choose the latter.

This is easier said than done, since automatic emotional responses create barriers to openly considering new and potentially contradictory data. At the same time, a healthy public sphere requires civic engagement and a willingness to reconsider views. How do we overcome this tension?

Cultivating skepticism and detachment towards political discussion can help us engage with challenging ideas and unfamiliar people for longer periods of time. This is important, as recent studies indicate that you are more likely to change someone’s mind if you can establish trust and rapport, rather than with a logical argument. After all, what is convincing to you might not be to someone else, and we’re not all logicians.

Skepticism and Detachment: External and Internal versions

There are two sides to skepticism and detachment: external and internal. External skepticism is underpinned by a commitment to questioning not only those with whom you disagree, but also those with whom you agree. It’s obviously easier to be skeptical of people we disagree with, but the risk of echo-chamber proliferation can be reduced by implementing a similar degree of skepticism even with people that share similar perspectives.

Internal skepticism is a dogged process of self-questioning that needs constant re-evaluation. It is skepticism of your own thoughts, and examining whether the events that shaped those beliefs are still sufficient proof to justify them. "Is my position on an issue still logically justified based on new information, or am I becoming defensive to shield myself from the emotional damage of being incorrect and having my identity challenged?" Being both externally and internally skeptical requires re-evaluating not only the opinions that we and others hold, but also the authenticity and usefulness of the emotions that arise in ourselves when we think about conflicting ideas. 

External detachment is the separation of a person’s identity from a particular opinion they hold. Obviously, this doesn’t work in all cases, as sometimes there are some beliefs that influence a large part of a personality. Detaching someone from anti-Semitism, for example, isn’t desirable or realistic. However, if you are generally willing to approach others’ beliefs this way, and set aside immediate judgment on the individual holding them, then you might find that they share common ground with you on other issues. Perhaps that overlap is narrow, such as specifics on gun legislation. But maybe it’s far simpler, like wanting a stable society or the ability to adequately support your family. By finding these shared commitments, we find a way to carry the conversation forward with our fellow citizens. However, this common ground frequently goes undiscovered, a Terra Nulius, due to the emotional barriers that fly up and insulate us at the moment of initial disagreement.

Internal detachment, on the other hand, results when we can separate our identity from specific viewpoints. Again, this is not realistic for all ideas. For example, we do not want to disengage ourselves from a commitment to a stable society. Rather, the methods of accomplishing these larger goals should be mental objects held in constant flux. Otherwise we greatly increase the chance that we will walk around with flawed perspectives. The mental shift to thinking of ideas as distinct objects that can be carried around or discarded as necessary lets us distance our sense of self from prior conceptions and therefore think more clearly about them. Once they no longer define an aspect of our personality, we find them easier to refine and more malleable. To get here, however, we must accept that feeling shitty about being wrong is a necessary part of the process of being right more often. This is, in other words, a willingness to feel emotionally bruised in the short term in order to be open to more accurate interpretations of reality in the long term.

None of this is easy, and I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert at it. However, developing internal and external skepticism and detachment lets us engage with others for longer periods of time, which increases the chance persuading or being persuaded, and therefore of discovering more effective policy solutions. And this open dialogue is what free societies are all about. These are skills worth cultivating.