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Don't be like Washington; listen to other views

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
Don't be like D.C. politicians, says Frida Ghitis. Above: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner .
Don't be like D.C. politicians, says Frida Ghitis. Above: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner .
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: People everywhere are growing increasingly convinced that they are right
  • Ghitis: It would do all of us much good to listen to people whom we disagree with
  • Opinions are contagious, she says, which is sad considering how often they are wrong
  • Ghitis: It's comfortable to be in an echo chamber of one's own views

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- The irritating spectacle of America's dysfunctional government, replete with displays of self-righteousness and stubbornness, provides precisely the right backdrop for a more constructive pursuit. The scene offers a reflective screen where we can look at some of our own traits. Much like the Washington representatives who refuse to find common ground, people everywhere are growing increasingly convinced that they are right.

Right about what? About everything, even the most complicated of issues where even a hint of honesty would demand admitting some measure of doubt.

Too many people are living in echo chambers, surrounded by the sound of their own views and beliefs reverberating from all directions, from television newscasts, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

"You are so smart," say those carefully selected people we have chosen because they confirm our views, because they see the world through the same lens, with the same biases.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

It would do all of us much good to listen to the people with whom we disagree, not for the purpose of arguing with them, shouting them down and proving them wrong, but to deliberately listen to a different point of view, one that might widen our horizons and perhaps open our minds just a bit.

How risky does it sound to follow people with different views on Twitter, watch a newscast from a different network, talk to someone from "the other" party -- and to do it while bearing in mind that nobody has all the answers?

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In fact, the one thing we can say with certainty is that we are wrong. Wrong about what? We don't know. We cannot know.

We cannot know which among the truths we consider so patently obvious today will one day turn out to be so absolutely, completely mistaken, that we will blush with embarrassment at the thought that we once embraced it.

After Sept. 11, 90% of American approved of President George W. Bush. Seven years later, only one in four still felt the same way. Conversely, only one in three Americans approved of President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Today, he tops the rankings in polls about who was the best president in the country's history.

Opinions are contagious, which is sad considering how often they are wrong.

A majority of Americans today support same-sex marriage, according to Gallup. Fifteen years ago, 68% opposed it. There was a time not long ago when people were horrified at the idea of interracial marriage. Today, it is much more accepted.

Few people are truly independent thinkers, and the few who are often become targets of ridicule.

For thousands of years -- yes, thousands -- the best-trained doctors had no doubt that the best cure for a host of maladies was draining blood from their patients. Their patients, even the most sophisticated, had faith in the bloodletting procedure. And when the great minds in the field discussed the latest treatments, they concurred in their mutual admiration. Those who disagreed were not welcomed into the conversation. No other views were heard.

Today, the same phenomenon happens. When Mitt Romney lost the election, he was completely shocked, as were his followers. On his last campaign flight, Romney brandished his iPad to show reporters he had just finished writing his acceptance speech for Election Night. He didn't write a concession speech because he was convinced he would win. That's because his hall of mirrors reflected back his own views. His echo chamber sounded back his own ideas.

At the Boston Convention Center where he was planning to deliver the speech that night, Romney's supporters were stunned when they heard Fox News on the big screen declare Obama the winner. They had been listening to analysis on FNC, where the experts predicted victory, telling each other and their viewers how smart they were.

On MSNBC, at the opposite end of the prime time spectrum, there was a home for those who wanted confirmation of their own great wisdom. Audiences on both sides were convinced they were right. They were sure the other side was completely misguided.

When the Great Depression started to crush America, Congress took what seemed like the obvious action, imposing huge import tariffs, aiming to protect American workers by keeping out foreign competition. That triggered a devastating trade war that magnified the misery around the globe. As the depression deepened, policy-makers made mistake after mistake, tightening credit, raising taxes and following the orthodoxy of the day right into the abyss.

The reluctance to listen to a diversity of views has led to many catastrophes, and it's not just an American habit. In Syria, the peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recently said President Bashar al-Assad is operating on the basis of views he hears from his inner circle, who have convinced him the uprising is nothing but a terrorist conspiracy. Under such circumstances, he refused to compromise when it was still possible.

Today, the consensus on too many matters is hardening on all sides. Social media makes it easier to turn up the megaphone of our own ideas. Despite easy access to information, people find it comfortable to live in a bubble filled with like-minded views. The result bleeds into the voting booth. It colors the ways of Washington. It creates phony confidence, arrogance and discourages compromise.

The best we can do is shorten the time until we discover which among our deeply held beliefs turn out to be foolish, by listening to a variety of opinions, and remembering that the only thing we know with certainty is that there is much we do not know, not unlike those puffed-up Washington politicians who would never admit there is so much they still have to learn.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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