Assuming Positive Intent in a Divided World-Doorway to Critical Thinking

According to the Pew Research Center, 48 % of Americans identify as belonging to the Democratic party and 44 % identify as belonging to the Republican party.  So, the U.S, is fairly evenly split between these two parties.  If we believe what we see on T.V., read in newspapers and magazines, or look at our social media feeds, we would undoubtedly arrive at the conclusion that roughly half of Americans are bad people.  It doesn’t really matter which side of the political spectrum you agree with, the prevailing trend is to vilify those on the other end of the spectrum, usually through oversimplification of issues, stereotyping, hyperbolic absurdities in the form of social media memes, or outright fabrication of data or incorrect information.  Civil discourse targeted at understanding each other and finding common ground in the pursuit of real solutions to real issues has given way to personal attacks and vitriol.

If I believe what I see on any given day in my Facebook feed, I must assume at least half the people I know suffer from antisocial personality disorder – that’s what psychologists now use to describe sociopathic or psychopathic disorders.  Here’s the problem.  Most people I know are not bad people.  They’re certainly not greedy, self-serving sociopaths.  As a matter of fact, most people I meet genuinely desire to improve the world, for themselves and for others.  They just disagree on how we can do this best.

So as educators, how can we guide the next generation as they navigate our divided world?  Much attention has been given over the past few years to the idea that the 21st century requires critical thinkers who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve problems and come up with novel solutions.  All the while our children are watching the adults in their lives grow ever more divided and unable to collaborate and find common ground.  Well-meaning educators all too often fall into this same pattern of vilifying those who hold political, religious, or philosophical positions that differ from theirs.  It’s so easy to post a clever meme without considering how broad a brush it paints with or how oversimplified it treats an issue.  It’s so easy to forward/share that latest “news article” that showed up in your newsfeed without carefully vetting it for accuracy.  And on some level, we feel a sense of duty to post and share as a civic duty, fighting the good fight or standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves.  I get it.

But what if we started by assuming positive intent?  What if we assumed that half the population wasn’t sociopathic, but actually wanted to work to create the same better world we want?  What if we stopped throwing stones and arguing our point and tried to actually understand each other?  What if we taught our students to listen to each other and seek understanding?  I believe this is the doorway to critical thinking when it comes to controversial topics.

Years ago, I tried an experiment in my high school civics class.  I had my students brainstorm a list of 15 or so controversial topics like gun control, abortion, legalization of drugs, immigration, etc.  Then they had to create a fairly simple position statement for both sides of the issue.  From there the task was to begin by assuming positive intent and write a brief description of what positive outcome they thought each side of the issue was trying to accomplish.  What developed through this process was a rich discussion that helped us all grapple with the reality that someone could hold a position opposite to our own and honestly have good, positive, noble motivations for holding their position.

When such topics came up throughout the rest of the year, and students began to get emotionally charged, we were able to reference this work, and remind each other to assume positive intent until given a reason to not to.  I’m not saying this magically eliminated all discord and argument, but it did help us steer the discourse away from personal attack and keep it focused on the issue and working together from our differences to seek novel solutions and divergent thinking.  It helped us not take disagreements so personally.  It helped us strengthen our commitment to understanding each other rather than just tearing each other down.  Sometimes discussions led to interesting ideas for how to find common ground and work together and sometimes when the dust settled folks just had to agree to disagree, but we were able to do it with a higher degree of respect and tolerance for each other’s positions.

I know we won’t all agree on everything, but wouldn’t it be great if we could at least disagree respectfully?   Let’s expect our students to be willing to listen to each other and consider the possibility that they might develop more positive solutions together than they would isolated in their own little political camps where the information they are fed rarely, if ever challenges preconceived ideas and philosophies.  Let’s get serious about teaching students to think critically and creatively.  In the end there is far more that unites us than divides us, and the world will be a better place if we believe this and act accordingly.

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