Maria Bustillos has written a nice piece for The New Yorker on reading writers that you tend to disagree with…
Reading Burke, or any great polemicist, is a challenging test of one’s own intellectual swordsmanship. There is, or can be, a certain violence, even danger, in the clash of ideas. But I like to think that those hard-fought glimpses of understanding between ourselves and our rhetorical opponents open up the possibility of progress.
One of my healthier inclinations is towards exploring ideas that contradict my opinions. Had I been parochial enough to exclude myself to those who shared my prejudices I might still being waffling on about “intervention” and “conspiracy theorists”, or, indeed, “Islamophobia” and “Richard Littlejohn”.
These days I read people who include liberals, socialists, libertarians, reactionaries, sceptics, paranormalists, Christians, atheists, Islamic apologists, genetic determinists, vegans and Guardian columnists. Reading people with whom you have disagreed exposes you to data and analyses that test your preconceptions, and it is also a lot of fun. It can become a more active and enlightening experience than reading someone describe the view from your own window.
This could sound like a boastful assertion of my open-mindedness but it is not. One can read an argument that contradicts one’s prejudices yet be so biased against it that one need not have. An important point is that one must not approach the arguments with the expectation of their being incorrect but of their contradicting one’s preconceptions. The former attitude will ensure that one’s cognitive biases will do the rest of the work in dismissing them and the exersize will not transcend the anthropological. The latter, with its admission of the fallibility of one’s own ideas, creates room for intellectual contestation.
One must also be wary of the grounds on which one dismisses an idea. Is it because it is untrue or wicked or is it because it has been obstructed by a deeper layer of one’s prejudices? A Christian might reject an idea for being un-Christian, or a liberal might disdain an idea for being illiberal, yet they must first ask themselves if their religious and ideological premises are so firmly grounded that such objections have merit. It is hard to appreciate new intellectual terrain if one has yet to remove one’s tinted spectacles.
It is also worth ensuring that the thinkers whose ideas you choose to explore are not merely those people who your culture has designated as your ideological foes. A left-winger might think they are being open-minded in reading Toby Young, say, and a right-winger might assume they are being adventurous in reading Tanya Gold, but these tend to be court jesters of societies, arguing more for its amusement than its elucidation. It is worth venturing further into the territories of one’s supposed opponents: where the landscape is stranger and the beasts than one encounters seem more formidable yet also more fascinating.