Posted by: Kerry Gans | February 21, 2013

How Books Can Bridge the Polarized Communication Gap

I have become increasingly concerned about our inability to communicate across differences in America. People decide upon an opinion or stance and then stick to it no matter what facts come to light to show the contrary view is correct. It started in the political arena, but it has spread to the general population—this belief that if you change your mind based on new evidence you are somehow weak.

The view that it is a weakness to change your opinion or belief based on rational thought and evidence defies logic. It is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Only a person who thinks independently can be willing to grow and change in their worldview, and only a person of strong character can graciously admit that they were wrong initially and changed their minds. The entire basis of the rational scientific process is based on this idea that a hypothesis is made based on current evidence, but can be revised when new evidence presents itself. That’s not weakness, that’s progress.

But people today seem afraid to even listen to the other side’s view—afraid that they might hear something to make them question their beliefs or opinions. It is a fact that people tend to listen to news sources and read articles that support their beliefs rather than challenge them. People remember the bits and pieces of an event that support what they believe and forget the rest. That seems to be the way people are wired, and no amount of shouting or data from the other side is going to change what they believe.

So how can this communication gap be crossed? If people will not listen to facts, if they will not listen at all to the other side, how can people be reached?

Experience. People don’t like their worldview threatened. But if they experience something that shakes them, they may see the world differently after that. We’ve all been through experiences in our lives that have profoundly changed us for better or worse. Job loss, personal loss, marriage, children. We change the way we think when we experience something emotionally.

This is where books come in. I am not talking about non-fiction books full of data, but novels. Good novels draw a reader in. They allow the reader to experience what life is like for the protagonist. When the reader finishes the book, a really good novel leaves them thinking about ideas and questions they hadn’t considered before. Most of us have read To Kill A Mockingbird in school, and most of the people I know count it as either a favorite book or as one that touched them deeply. We’ve all had books like that in our lives.

This is how the polarization can be neutralized. I think one reason people don’t want to change their mind is the fear that they will lose face by being “defeated” by their opponent. A book doesn’t have that social fear attached. If a book changes your mind, you can claim you came to the decision yourself—which you have—and not been coerced by the other side.

Thinking for oneself is the ultimate freedom. Our culture today seems to discourage that and just want everyone to accept sound bites and celebrity shenanigans as “important news.” Don’t fall for it. Talk to the people on the other side. Failing that, read about them. Read outside your normal zone, stretch your mind into corners of the world you never even knew existed. This is the strength of books—they empower you. This is why the first thing most totalitarian governments do is burn the books or limit access to them. Books are dangerous. They allow people to think for themselves. They allow people to experience a world outside the accepted dictatorship.

Books are freedom.

Be free.

Read.

What books have you read that changed the way you see the world?

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