Them and Us
Arguments are everywhere. Perhaps more than anything else, the advent of the internet and especially of social media has increased the frequency and the venom with which people argue. All of the classic topics for argument, which have been banned from discussion at dinner parties for decades, are still available - religion, politics, sport - but nowadays there are so many more topics which people can get stuck into, when we're looking to vent! Rigged elections, vaccines, Covid, the merits of wearing masks, pronouns, transgender athletes - the list is endless!
What's become increasingly apparent, however - and I'm not sure whether this was so frequently the case in a pre-internet world - is that many many people who engage in these arguments aren't looking to debate. They have no interest in opening their minds to learn new perspectives and pick up knowledge that might challenge their beliefs. What they're really doing, is communicating exclusively in one direction. Tell, tell, tell. They want to be heard, but they don't want to listen. They want to change the minds of others, but aren't willing to have theirs changed.
And that only leads to entrenchment and polarisation. People nail their colours to a mast and no matter what happens to the mast, their colours remains forever nailed.
The algorithms that dictate what we see on social media have a part to play in this issue too. They're designed not to provide you with the information or data you might need to form a balanced view of a situation, but to share with you the views and opinions which reinforce those you already hold. If the posts and comments that were visible to me on my Facebook news feed were reflective of the broader population, I'd have been led to the conclusion that Donald Trump was totally unelectable in 2016, Scottish Independence was a certainty in 2014 and Brexit was little more than an outside possibility in 2020. And we all know how those three things turned out.
This polarisation creates the 'them and us' feeling that comes with such topics; the views I see are from people I know and like (hence the reason I have them as friends on social media) and those views agree with my own. My friends = the good guys. Their views = the good views. Therefore those who think the opposite, whose opinions I don't see in front of my on my news feed, must fall outside of my friend group. They are the other. It's easy to demonise people, when you're not interacting with them and to tell yourself that their opinion differs from yours because of some fundamental character flaw in them. And now, when you do encounter those with opinions different to your own, you can easily dismiss those opinions, because the individuals fall into the other category, whom you've already demonised - either in your head or aloud. It's a dangerous and, ultimately, isolating way to go through life.
But what can be done to minimise the likelihood of falling victim to tribalism and of demonising the other? Well there are a couple of questions that you can ask yourself to help with this.
Firstly - when you take a stand on a topic, ask yourself: What would need to change, in order for my position on this topic to change?
This is powerful because it helps avoid you getting entrenched. It requires considering all of the evidence that you've used to come to a conclusion or to take a position on a topic, and understanding which of those pieces of evidence, if it turned out to be wrong or if it changed, would be sufficient for your opinion on the overall topic to change. Once you know that, you're able to engage in debate, open your mind to new sources of information, and ask the question of those with differing views. If they can't answer that question, or they're not willing to change their opinion even if every piece of evidence they claim led to them holding it, then you're probably not engaged in a debate - they've nailed their colours and they're only interested in telling.
"Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." ― George Bernard Shaw
The second question to ask yourself when you debate or discuss a topic, is this: Is it more important to me to be right, or to understand the point of view?
If it's the former, now it's you who is not engaging in a debate. Once people get into this mind state, they're much more likely to fall victim to things like the ad hominem fallacy; where rather than debating the merits of the position, you irrelevantly attack aspects of the person with whom you're arguing, or demonise the group who hold that position, in order to invalidate them. Another fallacy that can surface here is the straw man, where rather than debating the actual topic, you give the impression of doing so, but actually distort or exaggerate the argument and replace it with a false one, forcing your opponent to defend a point they never made. For example, if someone says they'd rather have a dog than a cat, and you ask them why they hate cats, you're guilty of the straw man fallacy.
The story of Daryl Davis is one which intrigues me greatly. Davis is a blues musician, a black man who has convinced over 200 members of the Ku Klux Clan to hand over their robes and leave the organisation. If there was ever a situation where someone could demonise and refuse to engage with those who hold starkly different beliefs, this would be it, but instead of doing so and driving further polarisation, he has reached out time and time again and shown that even the most entrenched positions can be changed, if you take the right approach. He has maintained friendships with many of those former Klansmen he's met along the way.
A lack of intellectual humility, just like a lack of humility in general, is a barrier to empathy. And a lack of empathy is a barrier to building and reinforcing the relationships which lie at the core of our lives. Separate the individual from their position or opinion. Understand what lies at the core of your own beliefs and where there might be gaps in your knowledge. Consider what it'd take to change your mind, and you'll find that debates and discussions are a lot less heated and the world is a less angry place.