Thursday, September 29, 2011

Team of Rivals - Finding the Truth Through Your Associations

As I was driving through the gray rain of a Thursday morning commute today, my music player tuned me into a podcast from the awesome folks at One of the segments was an interview with Brooke Gladstone, host and managing editor of On The Media, a radio show about, well, the media. Very meta.

The interview was a hilarious discussion about Gladstones journey around the world and through her career with various media organizations, and ended with a question and answer session with the audience. In that portion, someone asked an incredibly insightful question about the proliferation and diversification of media sources in our time, and how that affects consumption. Simply put, we get our information from so many different sources today, as compared to our grandparents who watched a handful of television channels, listened to a few radio stations, and read the local newspaper for all of their media consumption. So how does that affect what and how we consume?

Brooke referred to a concept coined by Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, known as incestuous amplification. The basic premise of incestuous amplification is that when you surround yourself with people who share the same beliefs and philosophies as your own, you begin to remove a majority of dissenting ideas from your view, thereby seeing the world through a more narrow defining reality. Soon, you only see the world as you believe it is (or should be), and can be oblivious to alternative views.

Arguably, this homophony of perception is running rampant in our government today. Politicians gather in their gaggles of tunnel visioned, party line-cadres, filling each other with vitriolic fervor. As they demonize the other side of the aisle, they often fail to see anything from their soap-box rivals as having an ounce of merit, even when it is a concession or political olive branch. Any chance for bi-partisan conversation is quelled by hate-speech and finger-pointing.

This is evident in daily life as well. We as Americans get into our own bubbles of contextualized news aggregation. Either we are listening to the left-wing whispers of NPR while watching MSNBC and reading the Huffington Post, or we are watching FOX News while listening to Rush Limbaugh and reading Sarah Palin's newest rant about bears. In whichever camp you fall, the fault is equal. You are not getting the full picture.

It was said that when Abraham Lincoln gathered his cabinet, he brought together a "Team of Rivals" (also the name of a recent biography of the 16th President). He refused to surround himself with "yes men", who would drink whatever Kool-Aid he fed them. He wanted his advisors to challenge his ideologies, thereby forcing him to defend himself ferociously before making a fool of himself vociferously.

I believe that, even though the majority of us will never be faced with the challenges that Lincoln dealt with, we can take a cue from this renaissance man's tactics. Force yourself to read news from a source that contradicts your own beliefs. Talk politics with friends that you know you don't agree with. Listen to the other sides ideas. And while doing so, remember to be respectful of those beliefs, as you would like them to be. Don't start a yelling match, but rather approach the conversation as an attempt to learn why they believe the things they do.

When I taught Business Communication at Black Hawk College in Kewanee, Illinois, I had an hour commute, three days a week, to that rural campus outside the "Hog Captial of the World" (self proclaimed). I generally listened to Iowa Public Radio for the first half of the drive, until I lost signal in the rolling hills of the Mississippi river valley. Unable to get anything other than pop-country and farm reports, I would then flip over to the AM dial and tune into Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. I will admit that I am more an NPR listener than a conservative radio consumer (though please don't assume that this fact makes me a left-wing liberal. My politics are multi-faceted and complex). But over the course of my commute, I actually enjoyed listening to what the far-right conservative yellers had to say. By engaging in this inadvertent political discourse, I was given two very different views of the world, and was able to piece together what I consider a well-rounded view of what was happening in our country's political landscape.

Since then, I have tried to continue to surround myself with people who do not necessarily agree with my political and philosophical views. If I had to come up a list of my personal "Team of Rivals", I might include:

My father Dave Walljasper
My Uncle Jim Engler
My Uncle Doug Walljasper
My previous employer Todd McGreevy
A few of my best friends Mark Shoemaker, Brian Wilcoxon, Adam Lovinggood, Matt Hobbs, and Chris Stemple
My cousins Adam Overberg and Casey Overberg
My old Scoutmaster, Jim Eads
My wife, Annie Walljasper

Some of these folks have extremely different views of the world than I do. Others are very similar to my thoughts. Most are somewhere in between. But together, they've helped me shape the way I see the world around me, and for that, I respect all of their views, no matter how contradictory they may be to my own.

And that, in today's society, is a revolutionary idea that I believe could truly start a renaissance.


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