How do you learn to empathize with politics you don’t understand? (A prototype)

Homepage for “What are they thinking?!

We just had our second major thesis milestone — create a prototype of a solution in order to test a hypothesis. I want to share my thinking for how the prototype is structured and what I’ve learned from it so far.

Here’s the hypothesis I was testing:

I believe that if people are provided with resources online that provide perspective over facts, they can see, understand and empathize with those they disagree with politically.

I wanted to create a resource for people to learn how to be more empathetic with people they don’t understand politically. There are lots of ideologies out there, and it’s extremely rare for someone to express a perfect representation of that ideology. We all possess a mix of lots of different ideas about how the world should work. Take a look at Pew’s most recent study of political typology.

A breakdown of ideological variety

The media tends to focus on polarized discussion of “left” vs “right”, but how many people fully understand the intricacies of these ideological concepts? How much information do we obscure by boiling the arguments down to two “catch-all” ideologies? Most importantly, how many people really understand the ideologies that they don’t hold themselves? This chapter from the book Moral Politics does a good job capturing these ideas.

That’s why I made the prototype What are they thinking?! It’s a tool that provides explainers of ideologies for particular issues. For example, you might select “What do conservatives think about the national debt?” or “What do socialists think about tax reform?” (at the moment, the prototype only provides one explainer)

An explainer for an Ideology and Issue pairing

What I’ve learned:

  • The concept seems to be resonating. I’ve showed it to a small handful of people who seem to think I’m on the right track. Of course I need to expand more, but people are really curious after they start to play with it.
  • I need to be more explicit about who I want to use something like this. The biggest question I think I need to answer is should they be politically engaged or not? It might be interesting to not just explain how ideologies see an issue, but who are the types of people that represent these ideologies. Where are they from? How did they grow up?
  • The feedback feature is not well thought out. I need to think through how feedback might be sent to the service and how the service should react. What sort of information can be sent to me? Should people be allowed to edit pages like a Wiki?
  • Writing content is f***ing hard. I am not a writer, and politics was not a core interest of mine until only the last 3 years. People are going to read this with a critical eye, they’re going to click on the links I send them to, and attempt to trust what information I’m giving them. That’s a stressful reality and I spent a lot of time trying to make the writing perfect, which is impossible.

What I might do next

  • Research feedback models. I don’t think I want a completely collaborative editing for explainers like this, but I do want a way to incorporate what people are thinking.
  • People profiles and more diversity of ideology. Since no one person represents a perfect representation of an ideology, how can I show people different variations of these ideologies and who are the types of people that represent them. Those ideologies should also be represented in the “ideology” dropdown on each page.
  • About us page. What are the principles of the site? Why does it exist? I want to elaborate on this more. It will also have a nice side benefit of helping me clarify what my mission and intention is.
  • Show it to more conservatives and get more of a “go to” list of conservatives that I can contact consistently. Conservatives are much harder for me to reach. I need a group of conservatives whose opinions I value and can keep me honest with what I’m trying to do.

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