Minds Wide Shut

Finding the fundamentals of fundamentalism

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Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro is also an economics professor, who for a decade, has taught a class with his NU colleague, Gary Saul Morson, Lawrence B Duman Professor of the Arts & Humanities and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures The course, "Economics Meets the Humanities," has led to three books--and counting. 

In March, the duo published their latest: Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us . The new book "argues for respectful dialogue and diversity of opinion," explains Morson. It flows from the motto of their class, a quote by John Stuart Mill: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."

While it addresses a serious topic, the book is written conversationally. "In a book with 511 footnotes," observed Schapiro, "you'd better have some humor."

Following are highlights from a recent conversation with JUF News .

JUF NEWS: How do you define who 'fundamentalists' are?

Schapiro:

As we titled one of our op eds, "We have met the fundamentalists, and they are us." We are all fundamentalists, to some degree, because not everything we believe can be open for debate. Now, if that's true for most of what you believe, you have a problem. But if it's true for nothing you believe, who are you?

Morson:

If you have fundamentalist beliefs, have only a few. And don't claim they are based on evidence or reason. 

[Schapiro's and my] relationship embodies our philosophy: that it's OK to have different points of view. Democracy depends on people having different opinions. And disagreement shouldn't require hatred. No matter how much you disagree with someone, you can learn something from them. You can say, "I understand why you might think otherwise."

The subtitle of your book mentions the "new" fundamentalisms. What's new about them?

Morson:

We're seeing new levels of increased incivility in matters of religion, politics, economics. It had been latent, and is now dominant. When was the last time you heard someone say 'It's a free country'? Now it's 'Watch what you say.'

But this isn't about censorship. It's about changing people's minds. I don't want people to not say things because they are afraid to, but because they don't believe them!

Schapiro:

Yes, there were racism, misogyny, and homophobia in the past as well. But now we are in echo chambers where we are comfortable. And we wonder why we don't develop tools to listen. The book expresses the need for intellectual humility.

How can colleges address this issue?

Schapiro:

College provides the blessing and challenge to live with people with very different backgrounds than our own. It's one of the few opportunities we have for that, and it's still only four years out of our whole lives. But we have to get out of our silos-- it's a moral obligation.

Morson:

People's views are an expression of their experience, so we have to increase the compass of that experience. And we try to get students to realize the privileges they don't even know they have.

What impact do you hope the book has?

Morson:

We were asked, about writing such a book: 'How can you think you'll change their minds, if you know they are fundamentalists?' At least, the readers can become more aware of their own behavior.

Shapiro:

Yes, we have to get people out of their comfort zones. If we don't, we are cheating ourselves and our democracy. Polarization is bad for democracy-- calling each other "stupid" and "evil" doesn't bode well for the future. 

The new book Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us is available from the Princeton University Press.



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