Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff discuss the breakdown in civil discourse and how to re-engage with those across the political divide.

Producer: Johannah James
03/01/2022 • 07:36 AM EST

Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, authors of their latest book, Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy, discuss the origins of our current hyper-partisanship and lay out a roadmap for breaking through polarization and re-establishing a more tolerant and centered civil discourse with those that are on opposing sides of the political spectrum.

0:00: Johannah James:

With us today, we have Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, prominent scholars of media studies and authors of their latest book, Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy. And they are here today to talk to us about their new book, about how polarization and hyper-partisanship can be a danger to democracy. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:21: Mickey Huff:

My pleasure. Good to be here.

0:23: Johannah James:

In your latest book, you talk about democracy resting upon certain social pillars. Can you explain what these pillars are and that we might sometimes take them for granted and how the current polarization and hyper-partisanship threatens that foundation?

0:37: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

This text emerged out of the fears we had about the future of democracy. Mickey and I wrote United States of Distraction in 2019, which sort of documented how we've got to this historic moment, where democracy was threatened. And we kept getting questions from folks. We go on book talks, do public talks about, you know, how do I engage with people I disagree with? Or we heard from folks who said that they didn't see the value anymore in engaging in conversation with people they disagreed with.

And Mickey and I sort of went back to the scholarship. And in this text, we lay out that really the foundation of democracy is predicated on citizens having dialogue. That part of being in democracy is actively participating in conversation, not only informing yourself and becoming a sharper critical thinker about information, but sifting through that information and perspectives on that information with other members of the democracy. And so, we wrote this text as a way for folks to better position themselves, to be active of participants in our democracy.

Of course, Mickey and I have long documented the ways in which powerful institutions, particularly news media, serve to undermine our efforts to have constructive dialogue. And so, one of the things we saw as a threat in the United States of Distraction and this text is designed to help mitigate is the divisive effects of media political discourse, and other related content. I think Mickey can speak to that.

2:16: Mickey Huff:

Yeah. A little bit. You know, we've been doing this type of work for a number of years, both through Project Censored and then through the United States of Distraction, but you know, this as Nolan suggested, this current book with Routledge is literally a critical thinking textbook. We're college instructors. You know, we've been teaching, I've been teaching college for over 20 years. Nolan has been in it for a decade. My tenured position is at a large community college in Northern California. I have also taught at universities. Nolan teaches at the University of California, California State University. So, we're kind of all along the higher educational spectrum. And we wanted to write a textbook that really addressed the challenges that we brought forth in United States of Distraction, but we wanted to focus more on what to do about it. And even though our City Lights book has a whole chapter called Make America Think Again, kind of riffing on the MAGA. Of course, that also assumes we used to be more thoughtful and we won't get into the fallacies of antiquity here.

But nevertheless, we had a hopeful approach that we think that part of the reason that we have the challenges we have, the contentious society we have, is that we don't really have institutional models that promote constructive communication or discourse. We don't teach people about how to disagree. We don't teach people how to construct logical or rational arguments very well in our educational system. And what Nolan mentioned a moment ago, when we were on a bunch of talks for this last book, people really focused on that last chapter and they really focused on the, how do I talk to these people across the street, across the aisle, and what have you? And we said, well, in order to do that, there's a whole series of things that we have to back up and slow down in order to methodically do. In other words, instead of knee jerking everywhere we go, where everybody has to give their hot take on the latest thing, we really need to be more centered both individually and as a society in terms of the way we get information, process it.

And that means we have to understand who's doing some of that processing, who controls the information. To go back to Eddie Bernays, "who pulls the wires of the public mind" from the 1928 book Propaganda. And this is what we did in this book. We literally laid this book out to focus on what we thought were some of the more important factors. And we, interestingly enough, we went through several revisions of the Routledge book and reorganized the sections in the chapters. And originally, we thought, well, you know, the critical thinking part really needs to go up front. We need to hit people with the tools, right. And we backed up and we said, you know what? The tools don't help if people don't understand the importance of communication. And so, the book really starts out looking at communication, conflict management, how culture and power intersect, the differences between constructive conflict and dialogue and destructive dialogue. And so, for us, that whole conversation in the book really starts with the art of conversation.

5:28: Johannah James:

As you've mentioned and as the book kind of goes over, this ties in with a phenomenon of an American political culture of a lack of tolerance, or even fear of opposing political views. Could you explain this phenomenon?

5:43: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Yeah, there's been a great shift, particularly at the end of the 20th century, and some writers like Matt Taibbi and others have pointed out that, with the end of the Cold War, news media needed to have a new binary in which to frame its information. Because you could no longer frame sort of the capitalist hero versus the communist bad guys, American media had done for decades. And so instead they turned to this political binary where you had you know, recently the advent of cable at that point. These cable channels and news outlets, they started getting almost like this pro wrestling approach to news coverage where the audience gets to root for the good guy, which is either the Democratic or the Republican party. And to get to boo the bad guy, who is the Republican or Democrat or the opposite is.

What has happened over the decades, this has resulted in us having caricatures of the opposing political parties. We have caricatures of other states because it's red states versus blue states. And as we point out in the book, recent studies show that American's number one fear is other Americans. And this is despite the existence of polling that shows that Americans agree on a litany of things, they share a litany of concerns. But we have this sort of 24 hours a day bombardment of fear, fear of other Americans and division with other Americans. And one of the goals of this text is to get people to start to try and bridge those gaps, to investigate these characters and see if these divisions are real.

7:17: Johannah James:

Now, the text focuses on providing tools for approaching conversations about these differences of opinion and kind of different political stances or different approaches to life. It talks about how to approach those like in our day-to-day life. But it, I think it's interesting kind of considering the fact that you guys went out and academically got these conversations, how you guys approached those, making sure that you weren't introducing bias, but still getting those stories and getting that information you're looking for in the text.

7:49: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Yeah, Mickey and I made a concerted effort to try and rip controversies that were in the headlines. We wanted this text to be relevant. So not only was it looking at what we were seeing, in terms of how conflict was being handled in social media and our students and in our personal lives and things like that, but we also wanted to look at what are people debating? What are they fixated upon? Mickey brought up critical race theory. You know, that was like a graduate level theory that I learned, I used in graduate school. I rarely remember anybody talking about it beyond the classroom. And what do you know now it's in the headlines. So, Mickey and I said like, okay, this is something, you know, the debate around it needs to be in the text, as much as making sure we teach the theory. So it was that kind of approach to how we, we looked at the different content and concepts we added to the text.

8:43: Mickey Huff:

And just to tack on briefly to that, with not the hammer this over and over, but critical race theory keeps coming up. There's book bans, book challenges going on all over the country right now. You know, we've long worked with banned books, we the ALA at Project Censored. And, you know, again, we're opposed to censorship. We think there should be vibrant debate about differing ideas. It's especially important to note that marginalized populations and people historically have been silenced. And we think that it's very, very important to teach about these things. Nolan and I, in addition to doing journalism and media studies, we're historians quite literally. Our advanced degrees are in history and we've long taught about institutional racism and segregation and so on. And look, I taught US history for 20 years and never mentioned critical race theory.

I'd scarcely mention intersectionality unless I was in a sociology course. Right, you know, Crenshaw's theories. But I think we've gotten to a point to where now, through the media, these things have been sort of straw personed or red herringed, if you will, into ad hominem attacks against one side or another, that are kind of ships passing in the night that aren't talking the same language, that aren't arguing even about the same things. And I hate to say it, but each of the sides is somewhat misinformed. We have degrees of essentialism and reductionism on each side of some of these debates, which is also why when we talk about things like critical race theory, we talk about proponents of it and the academic significance and societal ramifications of the importance of understanding intersectionality, in theory and practice. But we also you know, talk about criticisms from African American scholars like Adolph Reed Jr., who often gets to referred to as a class reductionist because he argues that if we're going to have intersectional analysis, we have to be intersectional.

So, you know, those are just kind of examples of things that we bring up, so that we are able to present them in the text to students in a way that doesn't push them to take a side, right. There's far too much of that goes on in the media and our political institutions. If we're taking sides, Nolan and I want students to take their own sides. Meaning you know, the Emma Goldman, the anarchist, once said that "the most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought." And what Nolan and I are doing in this text, as in all of our other work is encouraging people to be sinners. We're encouraging people to be more independent in their thinking and more aware of how they're coming to their own conclusions. They're more aware of how propaganda and messaging impacts their own perceptions in a way that they can deconstruct it to separate wheat from chaff and sort of re-gear and refocus, and then rather be passive victims of persuasive speech and propaganda, they're more in the driver's seat of asking the right types of question.

And again, I know that this is exactly in the wheelhouse of the important work that you all do at Propwatch. And frankly, we need more organizations and more curriculum based on the kind of work that you're all doing that we also do, because as Nick Johnson, the great federal communications commissioner once said, if media reform, media democracy, isn't your first priority. if it's not your second, you're not gonna gain any ground in your first area of interest, because we're basically in many ways governed in terms of our attention spans by what goes on in our media culture. Marshall McLuhan was crowing about this half a century ago. It's more so now. So we go overboard, I think in some ways in the text to be very obvious about what we're trying to do in effort so people don't get caught up in saying, well, what the Mickey and Nolan think, what are they trying to get us to do? We're clear from the beginning, we want you to be a critical thinker, an independent thinker. We want you to focus on how you communicate and critically and compassionately and empathetically listen to people and how you use those tools to navigate the contentious world in which we live.

12:47: Johannah James:

The last section of your book is called Lead By Example: Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport. How could we do more to lead by example?

12:57: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

We talk about a lot of different ways in the text where you can lead by example, about how you can model constructive dialogue and critical thinking, and be critically media literate. And the sort of context in which we talk about that is individuals again, need to have principles. So oftentimes I see folks who are frustrated of you know, why don't they just believe the information? Why don't they just believe the truth that's out there? I think oftentimes the right question is what is it about you, or what is it about the organization you're affiliated with that puts doubt in these people's minds? So I think of things like legacy media, you can't lie and get things wrong for decades and to be mad at people for not trusting you. Same thing goes for members of the political class. You can't promise that this is gonna be the most important election of our lifetime, just like the last seven were, but this one is the most important and you have to vote and turn out.

And so, at an individual level, you can do that by committing yourself to principles of truth, knowledge, constructive dialogue, respect, decency. If you model that behavior over and over again, you'll get a reputation as someone that can be trusted. Even if you disagree with that person, you know, you can trust them. You know, what you're gonna get is honesty. You know you're gonna get unvarnished respect for them. Whereas if you model yourself as someone that is a partisan, who follows whatever your particular party says, you're willing to throw insults at people, lampoon people online, create or emerge in this keyboard courage, you're not gonna be the type of person that folks want to engage with, let alone converse with. So really the main point we make in that final chapter is it, it's really up to us. We have a lot of work to do rather than point the finger at everyone else. We need to look in the mirror and see what we can do.

14:47: Mickey Huff:

And I would add that, Nolan and I, we use pneumonic devices and acronyms, and, you know, we like to play around a little bit to try, we're educators, right? We're teachers not preachers. And so we like to use tools to try to make things digestible. And in the last chapter, we've long riffed on that, you know, democracy is not a spectator sport. Certainly a slogan that Ralph Nader has used over the years. And we came up with C R I T I C A L - critical. Let's get critical, right? Create constructive dialogue, reflect on communication practices, inquire, be a critical thinker, right? That's a verb. That's something we do. Test theory and spot ideology, so be able to understand those things and be able to identify them. Investigate and evaluate mass media. Don't just take it in, look behind the scenes, right? That's what it means to be critically media literate. Critique the content. Is it fake news? Is it ethical journalism? What does ethical journalism even look like? What are some examples of it?

We ask for people to assess, analyze and evaluate the digital media that they use, and to also see how digital media platforms are abused. Anybody who's on social media knows that some of the comment threads and posts are among the most abusive, communicative platforms that I've ever seen. And I mean, and I always say this to people and I think it bears repetition, even though it might be tropish or cliché, but I can't imagine talking to somebody sitting across the table from me, the way in which some people communicate in these online spaces. I mean, it's absolutely violently inhumane and it is disgusting quite frankly. But it is so challenging for people move beyond the default of that. I'm right. You're wrong, no matter what, or you have a different idea so you're attacking my identity, you're attacking my whole essence.

This book is designed to help sort of get some distance, even within ourselves, such that we can separate the distance between us and others. And so at the end of it, all, we lead by example, we practice what we teach. We model it. When Nolan and I make mistakes, we want to say, you know what, I was wrong about that. And it doesn't even have to be binary right and wrong. Right? It could just be, I didn't understand this perspective until I went and looked at these sources and lo and behold, rather than some things being either or many things are both and. And that gets into the gray and nuanced complicated world that we have to navigate, not navigating it is to be negative reactionary, knee jerk. And it goes more back to that. My side versus your side.

What let's agree to disagree means in the end for, for us as educators is let's try to not practice the worst of our communication habits. Let's try to consciously construct our arguments and our information, let's openly deconstruct and be critical of all the messaging that we see across the spectrum, so that we can build trust with one another. In other words, we need to be spending a lot more time practicing these skills, "Let's get critical," because we want to build bridges, not walls. So when we say let's agree to disagree, we hope that it's a way to take a disagreement and turn it into a building block for a broader understanding about complicated issues.

18:45: Johannah James:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We have been talking with Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, authors of Let's Agree to Disagree, a critical thinking guide to communication, conflict management, and critical media literacy. Gentlemen, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

18:59: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Thank you to both of you very much. I really appreciate it. Happy to be part of the team and thanks for drawing some attention to the book. I appreciate it.

19:07: Mickey Huff:

Always good to have these conversations and appreciate what you all do.