The power in welcoming alternative views

President Trump’s first official trip was to the CIA, an agency trained to encourage dissent about intelligence information but one that must also ‘face hard truths’ about itself.

AP Photo
President Donald Trump, background, speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Jan. 21.

For his first official trip outside the White House, President Trump decided to meet with some 400 officers at the Central Intelligence Agency. His visit was the first of several the President plans to make to federal departments and agencies. But it may be one of his most important. Perhaps no other part of government has had to learn the value of encouraging differing points of views – and then listening to them – than the CIA.

A core strength of democratic government lies in its humility to welcome alternative ideas, even to pursue them. This can help prevent self-reinforcing group-think. In its spy work, the CIA often sets up two or more teams to analyze a tough foreign situation. The teams are charged to challenge each other’s assumptions and facts. The process helps to work against inherent biases and allows a deeper understanding of reality.

In a speech last year, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that the world today is too unpredictable to rely on one person’s views. Two-thirds of the world’s nations are at some risk of instability. Specifics are difficult to pin down. Yet a commander-in-chief needs specifics with a great degree of certainty.

The work of intelligence agencies, said Mr. Clapper, depends on analysis “as free of bias as we can get,” forcing officers to look at information from a variety of views. Disagreements are encouraged, especially in pointing out “things we don’t know.”

For those purposes, Clapper led an effort to have the intelligence agencies hire people with differing life experiences. And he ordered training for senior officers on ways to overcome unconscious bias.

If the intelligence community is charged with speaking truth to power, he said, “we’d better be able to face hard truths about ourselves.”

Members of Trump’s national security team understand the need for patience in hearing out those who disagree with them. Defense Secretary James Mattis says the process of making decisions on security matters will not be tidy, but “it’ll be respectful – of that I’m certain – and I don’t anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win.”

Trump’s trips to federal offices should probably include the Federal Reserve and Supreme Court. Those parts of the central government rely especially on collective discussion and voting but with rules and a culture that welcome ideas being questioned. They try to avoid the dangers of being isolated from facts, of surrounding one’s self with people willing to please rather than challenge, and of shutting down a discussion by labeling opponents.

Dissent has been the strength of democracies, even to the point of armies defending everyone’s right to free speech. And the best leaders know that active encouragement of differences is a source of order, not a threat.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to