Reading to Love

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

We might think that simply reading more would lead to informed discourse, a more educated populace, and more effective conversation. Alas, the counter examples are rife. Some of the most egregious tweeters are plenty well educated, products of the best schools, even voracious readers. Our society has often defaulted to the idea that we can educate ourselves out of sin (and make no mistake – much online behavior today is quite simply sin), but we rarely sin because we are dumb. We sin because we want to, because we find it, at least in the moment, gratifying and fun. In fact, reading on its own fixes nothing.

Echo chambers and tribalism are real. Whether our media are written – books, blogs, articles – or video – cable news, online videos, film – our society has quickly embraced separate self-referential echo chambers. As has regularly been noted in the past months, it is as if Americans are living not simply with political divisions, but with two separate epistemic realities, two opposite conceptions of even basic facts, the products of two entirely separate media ecosystems. Simply diving into a good book, with “good” being defined as one that supports everything I already want to believe, only deepens the self-referential hole.

We need to read the other, the author who comes from an entirely different cultural, political, and economic background, the author who has looked deeply at the issue in question and has concluded the opposite of what we are attuned to believe. We need to avoid not simply political tribalism but also religious, economic, and social tribalism. The beginning of the question is to read broadly, including those we find to be way “out there.”

Bill Fullilove, “Reading to Be Wrong

Fullilove argues that we should read “the other,” doing so with humility. Humility is a nice starting point. Hold a position on a given point of inquiry doesn’t mean that your position is right or that it is adequately supported by sound reasons. It is always possibly that “the other” is right, even if you doubt it. By reading someone with a different viewpoint, your position could be sharpened, or nuanced, and, as a result, strengthened.

Reading charitably requires a constellation of virtues. There is a temptation to read those of other viewpoints not in pursuit of understanding but with the a priori goal of ferreting out the ways that the other person’s viewpoint is wrong. Humility is a good place to start, but it might be helpful to think further of reading as an exercise in love. The loving person seeks truth not for the sake of winning an argument, but for the good of all parties involved. It can be fun to dunk on your opponents, and sometimes dunking on your opponents can even be easy, but that is not always the most loving action. While slamming a point home may energize your crowd, it might not be so compelling to the unconvinced.

A strong argument and a gentle answer can be had together, one and the same.