Moral certainty is a beautiful thing. It’s simple and clean. It can provide a sense of comfort, of clarity, of purpose, of stability—a sturdy place to stand in the world. Especially when times are difficult—threatening or otherwise unpredictable— our thirst for such certainty skyrockets. We both vividly recall feeling this in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. President Bush declared in an address that fall, “You are either with us or against us.” It was not a time for shades of gray.
Of course, moral certainty can have its downsides. It has often been found to lead to higher degrees of outgroup intolerance, group extremism, support for violent warfare, and morality shifting—or justifying violent actions as fulfilling a positive moral duty to protect the ingroup and obey authority. Of late, it led both of us to curtail or end long-standing relations with some former friends and acquaintances over perceived incompatible political or value differences. And now we wonder, are we better off for closing those doors?
Read More: Americans Are Tired of Political Division. Here’s How to Bridge It
Today, moral certainty, puritanism, and “cancellation” that flows to the political right and left are once again on the rise. Columbia University, for example, was recently featured in a national report on Free Speech on American college campuses. The report ranked the schools from best to worst in terms of students’ experiences around tolerance for controversial forms of Free Speech. The bad news is that Columbia was ranked dead last out of the 203 colleges rated. It received a score of 9.91 (up from 8.0 last year) out of a possible score of 100, or what the report labeled as “abysmal.”
Of course, constructive disagreement and dissent are vital to well-functioning groups and societies, especially institutions of learning. They can serve as a check-and-balance. However, today we are seeing historically high spikes in affective polarization (in-group love and out-group hate), partisan ideological consistency (uniformity of within-party opinions across distinct political issues), and tightness of political in-group norms (sanctioning of member deviant behavior). The decline of individual courage and critical thinking this creates as a result of ever-tightening group taboos is a core driver of the extraordinary political mess our nation is in.
In this climate, more moderate Americans—the majority of citizens who might push back within their own camps on intemperate positions or solutions—often disengage from political discourse entirely. Yet decades of research point to the perilous effects of such forms of groupthink—or a lack of in-group dissent and critical discussion—on decision making, and how it typically feeds more severe group attitudes and out-group blame.
We saw evidence of this last summer when we piloted our Political Courage Challenge, a menu of once-a-day micro-actions that can help us break free of these cultural traps. One younger member of our group, a former student we’ll call Vivian, was having a hard time identifying Conservatives that she felt she could reach out to and speak with for the Challenge (many of us faced this problem). So, she posted a Tweet on social media describing what we were doing and asked if anyone with a more right-leaning point of view would be willing to speak with her. This was met initially by silence. Then, Vivian reported, a few members of her own more progressive community responded asking for more information about the Challenge. She said this opening led to several frank and honest conversations about her and her peers’ personal ambivalence and confusion over some of the more extreme positions their own sides were taking on issues such as policing and abortion rights. In other words, it helped to open Vivian’s ingroup up to discussing some of the messy gray areas inherent to these highly complex social and moral challenges, which tend to get quickly censored these days.
It’s true that being politically contrary within your own family, friend group, or workplace clique these days often comes with risks. So, the second week of the Political Courage Challenge focuses on this – how to help open up our own groups to new information and possibilities.
In fact, we worked through several of these exercises recently, and here’s what we learned.
Check your courage
First off, we took this brief social courage assessment, which allowed us to check on our own level of comfort when taking social risks in a group, and to consider the possible unforeseen consequences of doing so.
Peter: I focused on my experiences at my workplace, Columbia University, for this exercise. Intellectual freedom is supposedly celebrated in American universities, but my “social courage assessment” revealed how hard it had gotten for me to find the guts to go against the grain at work. It often feels expected to espouse strong Liberal sensitivities at my college, but there seemed little tolerance for questioning them—even pointing out the potential negative consequences of the often-well-intentioned policies being proposed to implement them in practice. Speaking up on such matters made me very uncomfortable and was often met with silence (full disclosure, I am an older, white, heterosexual, tenured male interrogating these matters). Nevertheless, it struck me as an important conversation to be able to have—especially in an institution where Free speech has been on the decline. This was a hard one, but I’m working on it.
Know your need to belong
In March 2023, Adam Hoffman, a senior at Princeton, wrote a New York Times piece about his experience of becoming a more radicalized, “scorched-earth” conservative on his campus, driven by a confluence of events including being enrolled in one of the, “puritanically progressive campuses that alienate conservative students from their liberal peers and college as a whole.” This is a common dynamic in hyper-polarized settings—the more extreme and entrenched they become, the more inclined we are to mirror them.
In addition, studies have shown that over the last few decades, our trust in one another and in our religious and business institutions in America has plummeted, leaving many of us feeling generally more isolated and alone. This, of course, is fertile soil for feeling drawn to groups that welcome us—even recruit us— by offering us a clear, vivid sense of meaning and belonging with messages like “you are special, underappreciated, and under threat.” So, today many of us are facing the one-two punch of feeling excluded and alone.
One way to gage your experiences around this vulnerability is by taking the Need to Belong scale, which measures your current level of motivation to be accepted by others and avoid being shunned. Increasing your awareness of this need is one way to mitigate its influence.
Pearce: I was disturbed, frankly embarrassed, to realize how susceptible to tribalism I have been these days. I have a strong need to belong. Yet like so many Americans today, I feel politically homeless, lonely outside the us vs. them binary. Lonely but still in the line of fire. I often feel ostracized and repelled by demonization of conservatives and Christians. I understand the temptation to latch onto a tribe, to come in from the cold, to find belonging in battle.
Propose a group misperception check
One of the biggest drivers of political polarization in the U.S. today is the perception gap. This is the difference between how extreme many of us on the left and right perceive the members of the opposite camp to be in terms of their political attitudes and actions—versus where those members actually stand on the issues. The real problem with this gap is that our inaccurate perceptions of the “other side” tend to elicit more extreme attitudes and reactions from us, which can trigger a vicious cycle. Becoming aware of these misperceptions can encourage us to check our assumptions and soften (or shift) our own positions on some issues.
Peter: Last summer, I asked a small group of my former students and staff members to take More in Common’s Perception Gap quiz, and review the findings. Those who did were really surprised at how wrong they were about the other side and how extreme they assumed them to be. I, myself, was off on average (across several policy issues) about 30%! Yes, me, a self-professed bipartisan bridge builder, perceived average Republicans to be way more extreme in their positions on a variety of issues. Apparently, the research finds this perception gap to be particularly large for more educated individuals – particularly Democrats who follow the news more frequently – like me! Ugh. The discussion our group had on this was eye-opening and has stayed with me.
Practice finding fissures with care
During times of more extreme polarization, the pull towards ingroup conformity can be a powerful force. Those who dare to challenge the group party line are often met with anger, resentment, even shunning. Studies have found that intentionally assigning group members to the role of “Complicator” (or devil’s advocate) can help. Though, it is important to tread lightly and respectfully: while research has shown that devil’s advocates can be helpful to safeguard against premature simplification of problems (especially when the selected members are sufficiently respected within the group), they can also quickly escalate and become a tool for further abuses of power, gaslighting, and manipulation.
Today, both of us are working on walking this very line. That is, carefully practicing complicating our respective ingroup’s thinking by identifying and voicing inconsistencies and internal contradictions within our own positions and actions, without overstepping or abusing this role. This is a tough balancing act in the current climate. However, loosening the grip of certainty on ourselves (and in turn, on our own groups) can go a long way toward setting us on a more functional path toward unity.
Nonprofits Starts With Us, the Listen First Coalition, and the Bridging Movement Alignment Council are employing the Political Courage Challenge in the run-up to The National Week of Conversation. Follow this link to learn more.
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