Simple 4-Week Project While at Home

I was already wanting to do this post, but I was trying to figure out a good time.  And now that people are staying at home and all the news is focused on coronavirus, this seems like the perfect time.  I think, in this hyper-partisan environment, it would be beneficial for people to take a break from the news, especially the editorials, that reinforce our preconceptions and instead focus on some personal growth.

This is based on one of my favorite projects I would assign when I was teaching high school government.  Students had to research and defend both sides of a controversial issue.  They had to write a persuasive paper on one side of the issue and then do a presentation arguing the other side. The idea was to challenge their preconceived notions and learn more about opposing viewpoints

Using that as a baseline, I came up with this four-week project to foster some personal growth and, hopefully, better understanding of people with differing opinions.

I will readily admit that this might come off as condescending, and I apologize if so.  But I hope you’ll at least give me the benefit of the doubt in that I mean well and am trying to foster mutual understanding and a more productive level of discourse as opposed to the typical partisan bickering. With that being said, here’s my relatively simple project that you can do over the next few weeks.

Week 1:

Avoid most of the news.  Obviously, you should pay attention to critical information like announcements from your local health officials and the like.  But you can take a break from national and international news for some time.  More than likely, those items will be outside your sphere of influence and will serve little practical purpose for you in immediate future.  (This is just t a short break, I’m not saying to tune out for ever.)  And more importantly, absolutely avoid all opinion pieces and pundits.  Whatever your political leanings, avoid them all: Hannity, Maddow, Sharpton, Limbaugh, turn them all off.  Their main objective is not to inform you but to rile you up, which is the exact opposite of what you need to be a rational citizen.

Instead of that noise, read about or watch documentaries on something you are interested in.  It doesn’t really matter what as long as there is an intellectual curiosity.  IMPORTANT NOTE: Intellectual curiosity and morbid voyeurism are completely separate things.  Find something that will stimulate your mind, not something that just appeals to your base senses. To be crystal clear on this, even if it is a “documentary series” – I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THAT DAMN “TIGER KING” GARBAGE!  Watch a real documentary on actual tigers instead.  Whatever your interests may be, watch or read something that can help you LEARN more about it.  Ideally, you’ll find a few books or articles or shows or films that will help ignite some sparks of intellectual curiosity.

There is a reason I specifically mention “intellectual curiosity” a couple of times.  A study found that curiosity fosters understanding and a willingness to accept new information far more than pure knowledge. We need to foster this curiosity in order to have progress.

Week 2:

This next part will be the first of two big steps, depending on your level of curiosity.  Beyond your personal topics of interest that you’ve been learning about, I am going to ask you to learn about something a bit more specific.  Start to read about or watch videos/lessons on basic psychology, or philosophy, or metacognition, or something similar.  Basically, try to learn a bit about how we think and what we hold to be important in our thought and decision-making processes.

The only truly specific aspect of this subject you need to study as a part of this is on logic and reasoning.  Learn what constitutes a logically sound position and, on the flip side, the variety of logical fallacies that people may fall into.

I’m not asking you to read the original writings of Plato, or Freud, or anything like that.  Just read some Wikipedia articles or something to introduce yourself to a bit of it.

I realize you might not be interested in these subjects.  However, if you are willing to spout your own opinions on a political issue and dismiss the opinions of others, you should also be willing to learn a bit about why people may think the way they do.  Including yourself….

Week 3:

… which leads me to the third step of this project, and what may be the most difficult for many.

Truly question yourself.  Why do you think what you think?  Why do you believe what you believe?  How can you be sure you are right?

I realize in the constant stimulation of the modern world, it might be difficult to do, especially if you have a family, but try and find some quiet time for reflection.  Maybe on a walk, or just sitting in a quiet place.  Maybe even just a few extra minutes in the shower.  Perhaps something you read or saw regarding some philosophical concept or a hypothetical ethical dilemma that was posed pushes you to do some deeper thinking than you have done in a long while.

But the fundamental purpose of this week is to question almost everything you have taken for granted to be true.

Week 4:

This is the final stage.  Ideally, you should already be mentally prepared from the previous two weeks.

It is basically the assignment I gave to my students.  Pick a controversial issue that you have a long-held strong belief about.  Now spend this week trying to make the best good-faith defense of the opposing viewpoint you can.  Pretend you are on a debate team or something similar, where you must promote and defend that opposing viewpoint.  You need to convince people to agree with that opposing viewpoint.

Make the absolute strongest argument you can for that opposing viewpoint, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.  This is known as the “steel man” approach, as opposed to the “straw man” logical fallacy that is so often used.  I often told my students at the end of the assignment, if nothing else, they should at least have become better prepared to defend their own original position, as this is the point of steel man preparation.

However, the more important objective was for students to gain a better understanding of people that have differing viewpoints.  The vast majority of the time, the differing viewpoints have just as much validity as your own.  We need to avoid taking the easy and cowardly approach of simply demonizing those that have differing opinions.

At the end of this four weeks, it is my hope that you will have learned a little more about yourself and have become a little more attuned to people of different perspectives.  Ideally, this would lead you to be able to have constructive dialogue with such people rather than self-destructive demonization.  Because now more than ever, instead of blaming each other for problems, we need to come together and fix them.