Aside from being the name of a Mars rover, curiosity is a key value in forming and maintaining cross-cutting friendships. These relationships are important to maintain social peace in a diverse community and to build the character of both ourselves and others. But increasingly they seem more elusive than ever.

David Brooks noted in a recent commentary:

Entering into a friendship can be a life-altering act, and entering into a friendship with someone different from yourself can be life-transforming. The philosopher Alexander Nehamas argues that when we enter into a friendship, we’re surrendering our future selves to that relationship, in part because the friend may call forth parts of ourselves that don’t yet exist.

But being curious is hard. It requires a number of skills that sometimes challenge our very identity.

  • Leaving space in the conversation for others who may have a different perspective than you. A conversation is not about you. It’s not just a forum for you to tell your story, state your view, and win your arguments. Sometimes, others have interesting things to say, too, if you let them talk. And sometimes those interesting ideas will challenge your view of the world and of yourself. And occasionally, if you give them space, you may encounter someone who is as curious to know about you as you are to know about them.
  • Healthy skepticism of your own beliefs. People often use the word skeptical to mean “doubting what I’ve been told.” I like to use the word cynicism or pessimism for that attitude, both of which have their place. But skepticism is the converse: it is doubting what you have been telling yourself. In order to be curious, you must be willing to acknowledge, “I am wrong. I am wrong about some of my beliefs… I just don’t know which ones.”
  • Active listening. Restate your interlocutor’s idea in your own words in order to verify that you’ve understood them. When they say something you disagree with, instead of responding with a rejoinder, respond with, “That’s very interesting. Can you tell me more about that?”
  • Assuming good intent, an adage from the early days of the Internet. Most of what we say can be taken multiple ways, especially in its emotive content, nowhere more so than when discussing identity-triggering issues.

There’s a Diplomat inside of me who sees his highest purpose as fostering a sense of curiosity. He knows that he needs to nurture those cross-cutting friendships, in everyone’s best interest.

But he’s very tired. Demoralized. Today’s fragmented culture has frustrated his efforts and turned them into blackened cinders.

It reminds me of my former life as an Evangelical Christian. As religious fundamentalists, we learned how not to be curious. Rather, we learned how to defend our dogma, so that we could feel safe in our identity as “Christians.” We learned how to repackage apologetic certainty as curiosity, so that we could claim we were “challenging” our faith without actually having to wrestle with the fact that we were wrong. We learned how to isolate ourselves from those who could introduce us to epistemological sanity, so that we could stay comfortable in our ideological bubble. We learned how not to associate with others who were different than us, so that we could comfort ourselves that we were better than them.

This attitude allowed us to continue our slide down the slope of cognitive dissonance into extremism.

I see this increasingly happening in politics. Or maybe it’s always been there and I just haven’t noticed it. It seems there was a time when we could discuss ideas without shutting down others, but it seems so long ago that I can’t quite put my finger on it. Or maybe that was just on the Internet. (Seriously. In the early days, the Internet used to be a different place.)

The latest report on the Axios/Ipsos Two Americas Index notes:

Politics acts as a bigger social wedge than religion or race. Americans are more likely to say that people with opposing political views don’t share their values (45%), than those of differing religious background (35%) and racial backgrounds (25%). Democrats are more likely to say this (54%) than Republicans (45%). Democrats are also more likely to agree people with different religious backgrounds don’t share their values (40%) than Republicans (30%). Just a quarter of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (25%) agree that people of different religious values don’t share their values.

Political discussions now are fraught with more self-absorption, dismissal, and danger than even religion.

The Diplomat often is ready to simply turn over the matter to the Soldier, to enforce my boundaries and maybe bust a few heads while he’s at it.