Published August 4, 2017
From the CEO
In their groundbreaking work on decision-making, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky examined the influence of "confirmation bias" — our inherent tendency to see what we want to see, and to seek ideas, opinions and "facts" that reinforce our worldview. This unconscious rejection of opposing viewpoints goes a long way toward explaining why, in an era of unprecedented access to information, America is polarized to a degree not witnessed in a half-century.
Widespread reliance on web-based sources for news and commentary allows our biases to reign unchallenged because we can easily avoid those who see things differently. Internet algorithms aren't meant to widen our perspective, but to match the preferences embedded in our browsing histories. As a result, we are losing the ability to find the middle space where democracy can thrive.
The incivility born of polarization seems infectious, spreading from web platforms to political campaigns to campuses where freedom of speech is being challenged. Cable news organizations cheer on the schism, actively courting ideological extremes in search of ratings.
In the 2017 "Civility in America" survey, researchers found that a record 75 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached a crisis level and that it impedes the democratic process. Fewer than half were optimistic that our ability to engage in reasoned, civil discussion will improve anytime soon.
This sad decline is particularly disturbing to those of us at the Milken Institute who, for over two decades, have made it our mission to bring together people with disparate views to solve the problems looming over humanity. We must restore the concept of a "free marketplace of ideas" where the best path forward emerges through open, civil debate.
But changing the atmosphere of intolerance and zealotry will require determination. Two years ago, the University of Chicago (where I was a trustee) took a courageous stand by issuing a no-exceptions defense of freedom of speech on campus. "Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed," the statement said.
We look forward to seeing more institutions and individuals follow Chicago's example — not just on campuses, but in all areas of public discourse. Think for a moment about what's at stake: democracy will not survive without a shared commitment to mutual respect and a willingness to compromise.