I’m a big fan of constructive arguments. Good writing is based on them. (So is good politics.) Even if we don’t change minds–there is something essential in the back-and-forth involved in a sharing of different views. Or is there?
I’m interested in three main questions relating to this topic:
- How do we stay informed about issues, ideas, and what’s going on in the world?
- Is it possible to learn something through debates and direct disagreement?
- What communication and interpersonal skills are needed to disagree more productively?
Consider Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, in an interview with Krista Tippets’ On Being podcast. His response to her question about how he reads the newspaper–and what can to be done to “change minds”:
What is disappearing, or seems to be disappearing, is a culture of debates between diverse opinions. Whether there is anything that can be done about it, I would say there is something that can be done, but nothing deep can be done, I think. What can be done is superficial, can be very, very useful. Teaching statistics to the young would be useful; teaching economics to the young would be useful; teaching self-critical thinking, or better yet, how to criticize other people, because this is more pleasant and more interesting — those things can be done. You could educate intelligence analysts; you could educate people who feed information to decision makers, to some extent, to improve their product. But those are very marginal improvements. When it comes to the big issues, I’m not very optimistic.
So maybe we can’t change minds.
Then how should we argue? On this point Arthur Brooks offers some very useful ideas. First, let’s reconsider the issue, which is how filter bubbles and social media flame wars and comment threadjacking is overtaking us:
Political differences are ripping our country apart, swamping my big, fancy policy ideas. Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?
Brooks agrees with me, at least on this point: we need to encourage disagreement–but find a way to tone down the vitriol.
So what can each of us do to make things better? You might be tempted to say we need to find ways to disagree less, but that is incorrect. Disagreement is good because competition is good. Competition lies behind democracy in politics and markets in the economy, which — bounded by the rule of law and morality — bring about excellence. Just as in politics and economics, we need a robust “competition of ideas” — a.k.a. disagreement. Disagreement helps us innovate, improve and find the truth.
The real issue, according to Brooks, is contempt, “a noxious brew of anger and disgust”–empowered by outrage, hate, screaming matches, and, of course, ideological, tribal, and other differences. How can this be done? Again, Brooks has ideas (and a book, on the way):
What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers — the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. Unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, you are being used.
Key strategies for your next social media post or speech or public interaction:
- Resolve to treat others with kindness (not contempt).
- Begin now–even if you have used derisive or demeaning langauge.
- Use humor, warmth, and ju jitsu-like adaptation toward others who shower you with contempt.
Or, in Biblical parlance–and in the fine tradition of Ghandi–we can love our enemies.