May 21, 2015

Freethought and the Opportunity to Learn

Let the child explore and learn
Let the child explore and learn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have certainly had the experience of reading content that was largely consistent with my point of view and learning something from it. I would never dismiss the value of content with which I agree as a potential vehicle for learning. It can and sometimes does lead to growth.

And yet, I have found that I am far more likely to learn something from unfamiliar content that lies outside my viewpoint and with which I disagree with at least a portion. Exposing myself to content with which I disagree often helps to expand my perspective rather than merely reinforcing my preconceived opinions. I have no reason to believe I am unique in this respect; I suspect this is true for all of us.

If I were to avoid content with which I am likely to disagree, I'd be doing myself a disservice. I'd be depriving myself of the opportunity to be affected by it and surrendering what I know to be an important path to wisdom. And if I were to discourage others from exposing themselves to content with which I disagree, I'd be encouraging them to deprive themselves of the same.

How do I expose myself to content with which I am likely to disagree? First, I connect with many people on social media who have political views that are very different from my own. This can sometimes be taxing, but I often feel that I learn far more from them than I do the few who have political views close to my own. Second, I make sure to subscribe to some RSS feeds of authors who write content with which I often disagree. This allows me to quickly identify when they are writing about relevant subjects and read those that seem interesting. Third, I am careful to focus my attention on the content and avoid making inferences about its authors. Just because someone has written content with which I disagree - even if I find it objectionable - does not mean that they are a bad person. Perhaps one of us is just wrong. It might even be me.

For me, exposing myself to content with which I am likely to disagree goes hand-in-hand with freethought. This is one small part of why I am not in favor of efforts to suppress the expression of bad ideas through various forms of punishment, to live in ideologically pure bubbles, to create litmus tests for community membership, or to shun those who create content some of us find objectionable. I want to grow and expand my perspective. To do so requires me to engage with content with which I am likely to disagree.

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