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There is nothing wrong with strong opinions. They are healthy in a democracy—an apathetic electorate is an ineffective electorate.
But a curious fact about American society's supercharged political culture is that even the most humble debates (think: Which fried chicken sandwiches are best?) turn a tweet into matters of conviction.
Result - Criticism - Disagreement - Opinions - Mark
The result is that many of us come to see criticism as intolerable and disagreement with our opinions as a mark of moral inferiority.
That's a problem not just because it can lead to incivility; it's a problem because it can lead to dogmatism, and when it comes to matters like climate change or immigration, even violent fanaticism.
"Where your beliefs meet your identity'
I'm a philosopher who studies truth and democracy. And as I argue in my recent book, "Know-it-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture," the key to understanding why people are prone to turn straightforward disagreements into matters of conviction lies in understanding what convictions are in the first place.
Conviction - Belief - Level - Conviction
A conviction isn't just a strongly held belief. I strongly believe that two and two make four, but that doesn't rise to the level of a conviction.
Convictions are about what matters to us. Most importantly, they signify to others what kind of person—parent, friend, citizen—we take ourselves to be. They reflect our self-identity. It is this fact that makes a conviction feel so certain, so right.
Cases - Protestant - Jewish - Muslim - Convictions
This is pretty obvious in some cases. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, your religious convictions shape the kind of person you and others see yourself as being. The same is true of your convictions about hotly contested ethical issues like abortion, the death penalty or gun control. In such cases, conviction becomes where belief meets identity.
Of course, people do change their minds about such things, but the connection between conviction and identity helps...
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