Have you noticed that it’s impossible to have a conversation anymore? No matter what the issue is, whether it’s overtly political like the upcoming election, or implicitly political like the pandemic (there’s sadly no longer any such thing as an apolitical topic) all communication either boils down to unanimous agreement or heated argument. There’s nothing in between, and neither outcome actually accomplishes anything.
Progress happens when two or more different points of view come together to create something new.
The pitfalls of groupthink are well understood in the business world. When everyone simply agrees and no one is willing to challenge bad ideas, the results can be catastrophic. But the opposite problem is just as bad. When people with different ideas are more interested in shouting each other down or scoring rhetorical points than listening and understanding, everything stops. Everything, that is, except hostility and needless conflict.
I’m somewhat guilty of this myself. For many years, I focused my efforts on honing razor sharp logical arguments, because I believed (wrongly) that logic was an effective method of persuasion. I thought that if I could decisively refute an argument, then my intellectual opponents would be forced to abandon their viewpoints and agree with me.
But that isn’t how discourse in the real world works. Anyone who comes out swinging with a “debate” mindset is only going to be perceived as a threat, and humans deal with threats in only a couple of ways: avoiding them entirely or trying to destroy them. This is understandable. It’s hard to have a conversation in good faith if you believe that the other person is trying to trick you into falling into a logical trap, searching for a “gotcha” quote or, in a public setting, trying to turn the audience against you. Only someone with a death wish would let their guard down in such a situation.
And this is the key to why we can’t talk to each other anymore. You can’t actually change someone else’s mind, but if they are willing to listen and incorporate your ideas into their own, they might eventually change their own mind. That incorporation can’t happen as long as the shields are up, and as long as you seem like a threat, the shields ain’t coming down.
These days, everyone seems like a threat to everyone all the time.
I’m not quite sure why this is; maybe social media has something to do with it, along with its culture of “owning” the other side and relentlessly mocking anyone with different opinions. Regardless of the reasons, everyone seems to be afraid to admit even the slightest doubt or weakness in their own position, and so they stonewall. It’s as if progressives think that if they admit that maybe it’s not a great idea to abort babies the day before they’re scheduled to be delivered, or that maybe we don’t need completely open borders, then all abortions will immediately become illegal and all immigrants will be immediately deported. Likewise, conservatives seem to think that any suggestion that maybe civilians shouldn’t have tanks or that some poor people actually do need some help will be met with a gleeful “Ah ha!” from progressives hiding in the bushes, followed by mandatory gun confiscations and a total welfare state.
This way of thinking is not completely unjustified. In terms of policy, a small concession can easily snowball into a complete surrender, which is how we ended up with over $26 trillion in federal debt, along with a host of other terrible, seemingly permanent programs. But I’m not talking about voting for legislation here, I’m talking about friends and acquaintances discussing their differences like civilized people. If you and I are talking politics over a beer, I’m not going to suddenly implement a radical policy agenda just because you agree with me on one minor point.
This lack of trust is the main thing that needs to change in our conversations if we ever want to return to a world where we can discuss ideas and not just try to out-argue one another.
Before any discussion takes place, make sure all parties realize that it is just talk. Nothing is at stake, and there need be no winners or losers. Everyone can listen and contribute and maybe even admit that the other side has good points. No one will be beaten or humiliated, and there will be no real world consequences for thinking or saying the wrong thing. There’s no reason to get angry or upset. At the end of the conversation, everyone can relax back into their respective ideologies and the world will be just as it was. It’s just talk.
It’s difficult for me to type the phrase “safe space” without throwing up a little in my mouth, but in all honesty that is what we need if we are going to start communicating again. But in my version, safe spaces will not protect people from being offended or from hearing something they don’t like, but will merely provide an atmosphere of trust in which no one wants to embarrass anyone else, and everyone is engaging in good faith.
This is not going to be easy. I have plenty of friends who strongly disagree with me on almost everything, especially politics, and there are only a handful with whom I feel secure enough to openly voice my opinions, knowing that they are not going to shun me or throw me to the social justice lynch mob. Trust has to go both ways, and I try to foster an atmosphere in which my friends feel comfortable disagreeing with me as well, but it’s a slow and uphill battle. Still, I think it’s a battle we all need to wage in our personal lives if we want to slowly push the conversation back in the direction of reason and tolerance and away from the kind of tribal warfare that is increasingly threatening to tear the country apart.
People tend to favor grand, all-encompassing solutions to problems that can be imposed by a single decision maker (even though these are rarely good ideas and even more rarely actually work). Dealing with a problem one individual at a time is neither very efficient nor very attractive, but I believe it’s the only way to actually bring about the kind of change we desire. So I’ll start. If you want to talk to me, I’ll be happy to listen. I won’t try to change your mind or tell you you’re wrong. I’ll tell you my perspective if you want to know it, but I won’t try to force it on you, as long as you agree to do the same. It is my hope that more conversations like these, rooted in trust and honesty, can help us realize that we need not be enemies just because we write different names on our ballots. Maybe we can even be friends.