Of all of the challenges one expects to encounter on a canoeing expedition—bug bites, muddy portages, food made from mysterious soy products—clashing political ideologies is not the first that comes to mind. Nevertheless, two years ago, I found myself sitting around a campfire on an island in the middle of Algonquin Park fighting with my canoe trip leader, Yves, about the nature of the modern political system. I was 17, and in the midst of a seven-day canoe trip along with seven other teens, led by Yves, an outdoorsman and anarchist.
I found out that Yves was an anarchist after our second full day of canoeing, as my friend and I struggled to cook hot dogs over the fire. My whole view of anarchy at the time was a mob of angry peasants yielding pitchforks running around a burning village. Thus, my first reaction to Yves’ anarchist views was not one of curiosity or interest, but rather one of uncharacteristic judgment and hostility. I took it upon myself to argue for the benefits of capitalism and democracy as if somehow I, with my grade eleven education, could provide the arguments the rest of the Western world could not. As we sat around a burning campfire, I listened to Yves’ points, not to learn about his point of view, but with the intention of finding holes in his arguments that I could counter with my own superior arguments.
As we hiked long portages through buggy forests and canoed across deep black lakes, I ranted to my fellow trip mates about how wrong Yves was. Upon returning home, when friends and family members politely asked how my trip was, I would emphatically respond with a speech about anarchy. Probably most had been hoping for a one-word answer like “good”.
It was only upon later reflection when I recognized that my reaction to Yves’ opinion was not only overblown, but also indicative of a larger problem. My strong conviction that I was open-minded was only possible because up until meeting this anarchist canoe leader, I never had to be open-minded. My fundamental beliefs had never been challenged. I grew up in a family where my views were not only groomed but also reflected back at me from the community and schools where I spent all of my time. Throughout my life, I had certainly encountered political differences among my friends, but they were always minor in nature- one friend’s parents voted Liberal whereas the other’s voted Conservative- and never led to a major ideological disagreement. Most concerning was that my views were even upheld by the media I consumed— from the newspapers I read to the television shows I watched.
Today, it is increasingly easy to access a variety of ideas and opinions across a range of media platforms, from blogs like Politico to documentaries from Vice. This allows us to shape what forms of media and information we use. This accessibility has the potential to broaden our perspectives, yet can just as easily make it easier to narrow them. Even the most objective media platform delivers the news to the audience through the filter of its own ideologies. We can seek out the news outlets, blogs, and even Twitter feeds, that reflect our own views rather than challenging us to see others’ views. Seeking out media that reflects our ideological beliefs is not inherently wrong. It is natural to feel most comfortable receiving news from a source that we consider to be right.
Nevertheless, if this narrowing is left unchecked, it can lead to the kind of misunderstanding I experienced on my canoe trip. It may seem simplistic, but I think this anecdote reveals that the source of at least some of the extreme political division that we witness today stems from an inability to understand or even tolerate others’ opinions.
When confronted with a dissenting belief, I responded with anger and hostility, rather than openness. I didn’t seek to understand, but to prove wrong. I am not arguing for blindly accepting others’ ideas. I am only arguing that there is merit to be found in others’ ideas, and that the least we can do is to listen and try to understand.