This message is for you, not that obnoxious, over-posting friend of yours.

by Curt Bentley

You. Yes YOU. Open up your echo chamber.

Shortly after I graduated from law school, I had the opportunity to serve as a clerk on the Utah Supreme Court. I loved my time there, and I learned many things.

One thing struck me immediately — when our judge received a case on appeal, he would provide us with the briefs prepared by the attorneys on either side, in order for us to discuss the case with him and offer recommendations on how he should rule.

I remember distinctly reading the first brief of the first case and thinking to myself, “Why is this case even here? The decision is so obvious!” Then I read the second brief, and thought the same thing, except with the opposite outcome. I realized very quickly that a persuasive opinion writer — which is what attorneys are — can make a complicated and nuanced issue seem simple and obvious, especially if you only listen to him or her. Indeed, that’s their job. All of sudden, my easy recommendation had become quite difficult, because I had put the best view of both sides of the story in front of me.

I suppose I could have stopped with one brief. I could have read the names of the attorneys and law firms on the covers, decided who I respected more based on their educational qualifications and firm background, and then read only their work. I probably would even have felt like I was getting both sides of the story in one brief. Because a good attorney — and a good opinion writer — will acknowledge potential counterarguments, and then sweep them away, leaving you to think as to the position of the opposing side, “I already thought about that and know why it’s wrong” — all without ever having to hear from them.

What I learned by reading both briefs in every single case, was that things are never as one-sided as an advocate can make seem. It is not only very easy to make decisions and render judgment based on one side of the story, it is difficult to understand how anyone else could do otherwise. It is often — though not always — very difficult when you have a commitment to put before you the best both sides have to offer.

This lesson has stayed with me, for good or for ill. I’m a compulsive consumer of both sides of a story, whether it comes to product reviews or political news. Some days I am not sure this is a good thing. It can paralyze you with indecision. It can make you cynical and hyper-technical, believing that no one’s right and no one’s wrong, but that some people make better arguments. If you’re not careful you can start to embrace balance for balance’s sake. But the alternative is that you become a warrior for a false narrative, a proselytizer of a one-sided story, little more than an amplifier for your favorite creative writer, an empty vessel through which he or she communicates his or her ideas.

It takes some work and commitment to occasional discomfort. You’ve got to read articles whose headlines make you want to roll your eyes — but with an eye toward understanding rather than dissection. But if you commit to it, it will also open your eyes to your own biases and the flawed assumptions in your own arguments. It will either force you to make better arguments for your position or to switch positions. I tend to think it’s worth it.

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