Combating intellectual laziness

I discovered the subreddit /r/changemyview two years ago. I was immediately fascinated by it, and it has charmed me ever since. Reddit gets a lot of flak for imparting a safe haven to anonymous, misogynistic, white male trolls. Change My View is special. It stands out as a forum that houses some of the most productive discourse on the Internet with a user base that represents wide ideological diversity. The forum approaches our inability to understand different perspectives as an opportunity rather than a liability; concurrently, it endows trust in the corrective power of human rationality. In the words of the moderators, the mission is to maintain “a place to post an opinion you accept may be flawed, in an effort to understand other perspectives on the issue. Enter with a mindset for conversation, not debate.” The page has lived up to the high bar it has set for itself, and more. While moderators do check for rude and low-effort comments, they are rarely put in the position of having to take action (a rare accomplishment for an anonymous forum). Perusing recent contributions on the subreddit is a breath of fresh air from the stilted environment for political discourse on campus.

The rules of the forum are simple: users fire off a discussion by detailing deeply-held convictions which they are unable to internally dispute. Responders then poke holes in the argument. The thread achieves its ultimate goal when original posters award deltas to comments that have introduced new ways of understanding an issue to them. The capacity for intelligent, rational back-and-forth on a social media site is a pleasant surprise in the polarized world we live in. A few recent provocative titles pulled off the front page: “Eugenics is not inherently wrong,” “Free will is not a thing. Being moral or doing the right thing is irrelevant and all about perspective,” and “Nonbinary genders are bad for you and for society in general.” On each thread, deltas were awarded.

Frequenting the page has conferred upon me this important insight: the best way to recalibrate our approach towards every educational experience in college is to unfailingly adopt the lens of intellectual integrity — redefined. One quarterly ritual that takes place in almost every class: the re-explanation of the Stanford Honor Code and the official policy towards cheating and plagiarism. By the end of our time at Stanford, we will have skimmed Stanford’s definition of plagiarism and heard variations of the same maxim of academic integrity more than a dozen times. While “cheaters” are universally decried and all students would affirm the importance of the value of academic honor, little is said about it beyond the same redundant platitudes that we have heard from high school. True intellectual honesty is a life philosophy, however, and subscribing to it is not a light commitment. Blogger Mike Gene suggests that intellectual honesty involves publicly acknowledging when we are wrong, demonstrating a commitment to critical thinking and questioning our own assumptions and biases. This approach to education needs to be adopted inside the classroom and out.

The value of academic integrity is particularly applicable in the case of approaching political dialogue. Not every casual chat about politics is obligated to enter the realm of heightened “political discourse,” but often we seek that which is elusive. A post published on community blog LessWrong, devoted to conversations about human rationality, entitled “Double Crux — A Strategy for Resolving Disagreement,” recommends suggestions for producing the most efficient discussions when conflict arises. Written like a rulebook for a game, prerequisites include “epistemic humility,” “good faith” and “curiosity and/or a desire to uncover truth.” Admittedly, it’s pretty convoluted, but it operationalizes a way forward when two (or more) people are stuck muddled in arguments that are bound to degenerate into petty squabbling. Unfortunately, too often, things get in the way of our efforts to be intellectually honest: namely, sense of ego, resume-building and a lack of self-awareness. David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University find that when a person’s confidence in their beliefs is put in question, more often than not, they double down on those beliefs. We flock from cognitive dissonance and settle for obstinacy.

One example of this prevalent intellectual laziness is evident in the collective liberal response to contrarian views on campus. Everybody loves to hate the Stanford Review. Justifiably so — the publication is riddled with fallacious articles and sensationalist headlines, and its reputation has been defined by the low journalistic standards of such pieces. But the publication is also home to well-written articles that supply needed perspectives — Nikhil Prabala’s “A Bill To Nowhere: Fossil Free Stanford Meets SSE” and Antigone Xenopoulos’ “Slipping back to Selma: Voter Suppression on Both Sides of The Aisle” are good examples. Paradoxically, the same people who incessantly lambaste the publication’s worst pieces are the same ones who grant those writers their power when they make their articles the focal point of discourse. Several of the most thought-provoking pieces have slid under the radar, unnoticed by progressives who are too busy being baited by the most offensive, dramatic and poorly-constructed works.

I must clarify that I do not believe it is sheer manipulation that lures liberals into feeding the hits on the worst articles. Those pieces represent the easiest targets — moral righteousness is virtually guaranteed to anyone who denounces their content. The articles that attract the greatest amount of attention from the Review are consistently those that are most appalling; meanwhile, those that are most moderate and least clickbait-y are those that are ignored. As Melisa Tokmak writes, “Most critics of the Review only bother to read its most controversial articles.” One only wonders what new content the 42nd angry commenter added to the overwhelming contempt that erupted in response to a critique of Stanford’s ethnic housing. In a world where publications are incentivized by readership and rewarded by flashy titles, our attraction to the cheapest products encourages bad behavior. Adhering to intellectual honesty means admitting when we are being lazy. Fewer among us are willing to engage with the most thoughtful ideas we disagree with.

And while progressives are quick to characterize the Review as a homogenous group of white male conservatives, I was surprised to find a wide spectrum of identities and ideas represented and hotly contested when I attended a weekly meeting. Members were incredibly welcoming, open-minded and willing to reflect on new opinions, and the discussion was remarkably stimulating. Of course, we should continue to reasonably denounce yellow journalism and provocateurs that further the marginalization of minorities; but we can also take a page out of the Review’s book when it comes to proactively subjecting the beliefs we hold to the highest level of scrutiny.

To return to the original example: how can we most closely emulate the type of discussions that occur on Change My View, a place where participants are open-minded, humble, and yet sensitive to differences in experience and background? Is such an ideal even attainable without the anonymity that an online forum comfortably provides? I think so — if we are willing to be honest about what we know and don’t know and to practice understanding in hearing the honesty of others.

 

Jasmine Liu is a student at Stanford. This article was originally published in The Stanford Daily, May 18, 2017, and is posted here with permission from Jasmine Liu.