The One-Sided Argument

When reading or listening to “news” on-line, on television, or in print, we usually see or hear information designed to persuade us to accept one point of view or another. Opinion has never been confined to a specific page of a newspaper, and it is completely ubiquitous on the Internet and television. We see or hear what someone wants us to see or hear.

I don’t think exposure to different points of view or opinions is a bad thing, but I worry that too many of us (including me) gravitate toward sources that reinforce what we already believe. Ideally, we would seek out enough different opinions and factual information to make our own judgments. I think it’s unfortunate, however, how easy it is to accept opinion as fact and then fortify it with more opinion from readily accessible sources.

I have seen research that suggests our brains react differently to information that supports our own views as opposed to news that contradicts what we believe. I suppose my agreement with that research is based on the fact that it supports what I had already concluded. In short, we seem to be programmed to like opinions that are similar to our own and dislike those that contradict us. Just as our bodies seem to be attracted to foods that fatten us up, our heads are attracted to information that makes us fatheaded.

Part of the antidote, if one is needed, is reliable data obtained from sources that have no vested interest in what the data says. Given that most sources have some degree of bias, I think the better answer is to seek information from many different sources and compare it. If we always watch one television network or read one newspaper, I think we run the risk of seeing the same opinions articulated in different ways. I see this manifested on social media where my conservative friends only post information from conservative sources while my liberal friends only share views from liberal places. I sometimes wonder if any of them ever take the time to read the other’s postings.

A benefit of being a city manager is exposure to many different opinions every day and the need to be respectful of most of them. I have learned from my own experience and from watching others that public employees who become ideologues have a difficult time in our profession. We are entitled to our own opinions, and I don’t think we should feel constrained about expressing them. I think, however, we have a special obligation to consider and respect different opinions. The value of avoiding the one-sided argument is the richer understanding of the people around us and the better outcomes that result from considering a variety of alternatives.