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Based on the challenge not to read books by white men

Since the election, I’ve noticed a lot of people who are worried about epistemic closure– the tendency of people to be part of a self-reinforcing system of beliefs, an echo chamber in which empirical facts that go against your ideology cannot enter. I share this concern. Unfortunately, the commonly suggested solution to epistemic closure appears to be friending people you disagree with on Facebook, which seems to me to have the failure mode where you’re still getting all your information about the world from Facebook. So I propose a challenge. For three months, only read books by people you disagree with ideologically.

I’m planning on taking the challenge myself, and I’m also throwing this out there to see if anyone else is interested. If people are, I will start biweekly open threads where we talk about what we’re reading.

Here are some Questions I Predict Will Be Frequently Asked. I will update this list as more questions become Frequently Asked:

What positions count as disagreeing?

Fundamentally, “disagreeing” means disagreeing on any fundamental ideological issue. For instance, disagreements on religion count: if you’re an atheist, you might read books by sincerely religious people, while if you’re a Muslim, you might read books by atheists, Christians, pagans, or people who subscribe to a different branch of Islam. Political disagreements also count. I mean more than “votes for Democrats”/”votes for Republicans” here: if you’re a centrist Democrat, reading books by Communists and anarchists would count; if you’re a transfeminist, reading books by trans-exclusive radical feminists would count, even though you’re both feminists.

You might also read authors that disagree with you on other issues that are really important to you. For instance, if you write for Science-Based Medicine, then reading books by homeopaths would count. If you’re paleo, reading books about low-fat diets would count. If you’re very strongly anti-postmodernist, reading Lacan would count. If you practice positive discipline, reading books by pro-spanking authors would count. If you are a regular participant in programming holy wars, reading a book by an advocate of Insert Your Least Favorite Programming Language Here would count.

While it is possible to rationalize your way into “well, this person disagrees with me on whether the word ‘bisexual’ is biphobic!” counting, please note that engaging in Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea nonsense goes against the point of the exercise.

What books count as disagreeing?

There’s a lot of gray areas here. One clearcut rule is that anything where you disagree with the thesis counts: if you’re an atheist, you can definitely read a creationist book or an inspirational romance in which an atheist finds God through the power of love.

On the other hand, books where the disagreement is obviously totally irrelevant to the topic of the book are sort of missing the spirit of the exercise. You can’t read a pro-evolution book or a novel about deconversion by someone who uses Insert Your Least Favorite Programming Language Here and then claim you’re exploring the viewpoints of people who disagree with you.

That said, a lot of books fall into a gray area. How should an atheist taking the challenge treat a pro-evolution book by a theistic evolutionist or a gay inspirational romance in which the hero finds God in an affirming church? I would suggest using your best judgment while reminding yourself that only reading books you agree with is sort of missing the point of the challenge.

In particular, in fiction there’s a lot of gray area, because most books do reflect the worldview of their authors in a more-or-less subtle fashion. Again, it’s hard to put down hard-and-fast rules, but just use your best judgment and remember that the only person you’re cheating is yourself.

A complete exception to the challenge: any books that provide practical knowledge of direct relevance to your job or hobby, or that you have to read for religious/spiritual purposes. If you want to learn how to bake a pie, to speak French, to knit a sock, or to use a new programming language that’s relevant to your job, I’m not going to make you go find a pie-baking book that’s written by a faithful Catholic. And I’m not going to go around telling people to do things that go against their religion, either.

Why are you including fiction?

Fiction often reflects the authors’ beliefs and worldviews. For instance, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series emphasizes the wonder of science, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld reflects a humanist sensibility, and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is deontologist as fuck. Fiction can help you understand not just the facts of an ideology but why it emotionally resonates with people– and maybe you’ll emotionally resonate with it too.

In addition, fiction builds empathy. By putting yourself in the shoes of other people, you can understand what it’s like to be them better. People you disagree with are likely to have a different set of people they understand and empathize with, and thus you will get practice putting yourself into a different set of shoes.

I’m an atheist libertarian and my three favorite authors are Eric Flint, Orson Scott Card, and C S Lewis, are you saying I can take this challenge and just read my favorite authors for three months?

Yep! If you already read a lot of books by people you disagree with, this challenge will be super-easy for you! Good job on avoiding epistemic closure! I still encourage you to branch out from your current favorite authors– diversity in reading is a good thing.

Can I combine this challenge with other challenges?

Be my guest. If you want to spend three months only reading books by creationist women of color, I wish you luck.

What if I just spend the entire time hate-reading authors because they’re stupid?

I encourage you to read books by people you can respect and who can enlighten you about what other people think, but I cannot actually stop you from spending three months reading books by people who enrage you. However, this behavior seems self-punishing.

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