Sam Radford

April 20, 2021

Fundamentalists and fundamentalism: none of us are immune

Behavioural Science has an absorbing interview with Morton Schapiro and Saul Morson about their forthcoming book Minds Wide Shut.

The authors take on the subject of fundamentalism, helping us broaden our understanding of its reach.

We tend to associate fundamentalism with religion and politics. But fundamentalist thinking stretches into areas like economics and the sciences too. As they write in the book, fundamentalism is a, ‘radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn either from experience or from opposing views’. And that can happen anywhere, and with anyone. As interviewer Elizabeth Weingarten writes, ‘Fundamentalism is not just “out there,” lurking in other people, but inside each of us’. 

The book raises the concept of “real dialogue” as a way of conversing that’s often lost among people with fundamentalist mindsets. When asked what it means to have real dialogue, I thought this from Morson was full of wisdom and insight:

In a real dialogue what you’re really interested in is arriving at the best ideas—what’s closest to the truth. You don’t do it just by affirming your position. It’s not about scoring debating points, and it’s not getting the other person to see it your way. [It’s being open to the idea that] maybe the best solution is something I haven’t thought of. It’s valuing the process of the exchange itself, which means you really listen, and actually respond to what’s being said. And at the end of this process you know more than you did before, and you’ve arrived at a point where neither of you started. If you’re saying, “Anybody who disagrees with me is either evil or stupid,” then dialogue can’t work. It has to be [rooted in] the willingness to understand that you don’t know everything to begin with, and that the process of exchange is a value in itself.

I know I’m not alone in needing to hear this!

But that said, how do enough of us get this message for it to make a difference? Things are getting worse, not better. How many of us are open-minded enough to even recognise our need to learn how to do “real dialogue”? How do we cultivate a society where more of us have a ‘willingness to understand that [we] don’t know everything to begin with, and that the process of exchange is a value in itself’?

This books feels timely, and I’ve added it to my list. Knowing that there are ways in which we can improve is the first and easiest step. Real change in how we interact with others, though, is going to be much harder.

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PS I’m experimenting with making an audio version of these blog posts available as a podcast you can subscribe to. Have a listen to this article, and let me know what you think – and if you’d be interested.

@samradford |