As a university debate coach, I am often asked my opinion regarding contentious issues. In recent weeks, I have been asked what I think of the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. To be honest, I did not think of these hearings most days.

I do not follow the news religiously. I am more concerned with teaching and studying. But as the political frenzy intensifies, I have thought more frequently about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and I am concerned by the way political debate has been conducted.

I am not the first to worry about increasing levels of political polarization in America. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has discussed this topic extensively, most notably in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

Haidt notes that humans have tribal tendencies. We organize into groups, and we are righteous in defense of what we perceive to be our group’s interests.

A protester against the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh outside the Warren E. Burger Federal Building in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Flickr: Lorie Shaull

This intense devotion comes at a cost — outsiders are shunned. When someone disagrees with the basic beliefs of our group, we may call their character into question. At worst, we engage in violence.

This warfare might be justified if our personal beliefs were unassailable, but too often, we arrive at our beliefs unaided by reason. Reason is used — after the fact — to justify our beliefs to others and to ourselves. We don’t want to listen to reason, as such. We want to listen to our own reasons.

We set sail for India, land in America, and then decide that we were aiming for the new world all along.

Given this context, it’s easier to make sense of the political debate that has taken place. Most of my friends knew whether or not they would support Brett Kavanaugh before the allegations against him were made public. Unsurprisingly, these decisions were based on political party lines. I have met few people who changed their mind in the time after.

Partly, this is due to confirmation bias. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman explains that we tend to seek out and remember information that confirms what we already believe.

Confirmation bias explains why one group of people watched Kavanaugh’s “impassioned” defense of his integrity while another group of people watched the same remarks and viewed him as “hysterical” and “unstable.” To an extent, members of each group had already decided – before they watched — whether they believed Kavanaugh or not.

Entertaining Multiple Views

For my part, I worry about our ability to entertain multiple views at the same time. The truth is more complex than partisan media present. Though elected officials must affirm, negate, or abstain, citizens are free (indeed, encouraged) to seek nuance.

As a coach, I ask my students to prepare arguments on both sides of each issue we debate. This requires them to question their own deeply held beliefs. This process is uncomfortable, but necessary.

My students report that this exercise has made them more understanding of political diversity. Because of their training in argumentation, they are fully capable of defending their own beliefs, but they are less quick to attack others for their beliefs.

In our search for truth, we must acknowledge that many beliefs are defensible.

Accepting that reasonable people can disagree is not just necessary in debate; it is also the precondition for democracy. We must have faith that our political opponents, however much we disagree about specific issues, share many — if not most — of our ethical commitments. When we lose this faith, our tribes turn away from politics and inch toward violence.

In our search for truth, we must acknowledge that many beliefs are defensible. Our beliefs are always small parcel in a field of possibility. Reason is more often a guard dog than a guide dog. What have we elected to defend?

We must ask ourselves whether we reasoned our way to our beliefs or reasoned our defenses around them. And we should remember that those with whom we disagree are not always our enemies. They’re just as misguided as we are, and it’s only by working together that we can move forward.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.