With this post, I am going to attempt the impossible: Deliver a constructive opinion that everyone can support. I hope the message is clear, rational and agreeable. However, what I write here also might make some people uncomfortable. That is far from my intention. I will not be taking any sides on political issues. Some people will have a problem with that. All I ask is that you read the entire post.
American culture has become one of hardline stances. In the fall of 2018, I attended the popular Digital Summit in Detroit, a congregation of hundreds of digital marketers. One of the presenters said that as a brand, you need to take a stance. “If you are for something,” he said, “then you are against something else.” I can’t deny that the thought of living in a simple, black-and-white world would be far preferable to the type of senseless, unreasonable chaos where we currently live. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. Our world is gray. It always has been and it will continue to be.
But because of our tendency to take these hardline stances, we have stopped listening to one another. I see it every day. Videos posted online showing two parties trying to out-shout each other. A Facebook rant that ends with, “If you don’t agree, you can unfriend me.” Social media companies building in a feature to “unfollow” or “mute” other accounts, so as not to hurt feelings while building your echo chamber of likemindedness. The internet is a good place to shout into the void.
The solution, of course, is as simple as the problem itself: Rather than argue, or debate, or even come to physical violence, just listen to one another. Don’t talk over someone else — that’s a bad habit that I see everywhere now, even between people who are in agreement on an issue. When other people are stating their feelings, don’t spend your time crafting your rebuttal in your head. Listen to what they are saying. Try to understand why they feel the way they do.
Ready for the radical part? Not everyone who disagrees with the Black Lives Matter movement is racist. It’s possible to think that the movement is misguided. If you disagree, find someone who thinks this way and ask them for their opinion. Not to try to shame them or label them. To understand why they feel that way.
To that same tune, just because someone says “black lives matter” does not mean that they are demeaning the lives of other races or creeds. If you disagree, if you think that saying “black lives matter” is merely a shrouded political statement for an ulterior agenda, then talk to someone who is saying it and try to understand why they feel the way they do.
I realize that saying all of this can seem self-righteous to some. Who I am, after all, to sit at my computer and peck out some words about how everyone is crazy and how I have the key to a more peaceful future? Of course I do not believe that I somehow am more enlightened than the rest of the country. But perhaps if you take the time to read my thoughts you will have a better understanding for why I feel the way I do.
What do I have to gain from writing about this? What’s the benefit? The risks are great these days. Risk ridicule. Risk losing readership. Risk people disregarding your authority on any other issue. Risk being labeled by those in disagreement. Sadly, risk alienating yourself in certain personal relationships.
But if this post positively changes the actions of just one reader, I will consider it a success. Reason and sensibility are missing in the United States in 2020, to be frank. Over the last three decades, the country has become progressively more polarized politically. During that time, according to Pew Research, “The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled.” The percent of each party that views their rivals as a threat to the nation’s well-being also continues to rise.
But civil conversations can move us forward.
As part of our pre-marriage classes that our church required us to take, my wife and I met with a communications specialist. I expected this evening session to be centered around our faith, but it surprised me to learn just how practical it was. “You two are going to disagree,” the instructor stated obviously. “But you have to have good communication if you want to have a happy marriage.”
He had us practice an exercise where one of us spoke for two minutes about our feelings on a topic while the other just listened. When the two minutes were up, the other had to summarize what they had said. And then we switched roles. There was no debate. There was no argument. There was only listening and trying to understand. From there, you can begin to formulate a sensible path forward toward resolution together.
One of the dangers of close-mindedness is its ability to cloak itself in open-mindedness. I know some people who whole-heartedly believe they are some of the most open-minded individuals around. But being open-minded means having a willingness to embrace all ideas, not just those with which you agree. This close-mindedness leads to more of the same unproductive tendencies: ignorance, labeling, generalizations.
I spoke with someone last year who said she had been to my hometown. Not realizing at the time that I lived there, she made the statement that “the worst people live in [that town].” I asked her what happened that made her feel that way, and she said she couldn’t even talk about it. Surely whatever happened was traumatic. But let me point out the danger of her generalization. This perpetuates untruths that lead to more untruths. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Generalizations lead to all liberals being labeled as socialists and all people who voted for Trump being labeled as racists. They are unproductive and destructive.
Had my conversation with her about my town continued, what I would have said was that anecdotal evidence should not be used to judge an entire population. And, if you disagree, then use this bit of anecdotal evidence instead: All of our interactions have been very pleasant and I live in that town, so next time you can say “some great people live in [that town].”
The fact of the matter is that people look for information that supports their existing worldview. This is human nature. The open-mindedness that is constantly preached from both sides of the aisle is far less abundant than they would let you believe. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t be so polarized. This is the same in real life as it is in marketing, since marketing just attempts to take advantage of existing worldviews for financial benefit.
Seth Godin, famed marketer and bestselling author, explains this in his book All Marketers Are Liars. While the title is ironic — with the primary message that marketers should in fact tell the truth in compelling ways — he also writes extensively about how people gravitate towards brands whose marketing reinforces their existing worldview. We don’t necessarily believe the truth, but rather “We believe what we want to believe.”
If that doesn’t scare you, it should.
A few weeks ago I received a text from a friend with a link to a new episode of Sam Harris’s “Making Sense” podcast. The episode was called Can We Pull Back From the Brink? and it discussed the state of our country with the protests and civil unrest. In the text, my friend called it “probably the most important podcast episode released this year.” Naturally I listened to it. And then the next day, I listened to it again. And I’ve since read the entire transcript. What it does better than anything else I have read or listened to in recent memory is provide clarity to our irrationality. It’s sensible.
Harris begins by acknowledging where we are as a society. He sums it up nicely:
“We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.”
Throughout the episode Harris asks important questions, such as:
Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society?
How representative are these [social media] videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?
What should we do to build a healthier society?
Why is all of this happening now?
What would real progress on the problem of racism look like?
Can [racial difference] become less significant by being granted more and more significance?
Why do I bring this up? Because the questions he asks about race relations in America can be applied to any social or political difference. At the end of the podcast, he sums up the point I am trying to make nearly perfectly:
“We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.“
I was raised to understand that there are two sides to every story. That doesn’t mean that both sides are right; sometimes one side is in the wrong. But it’s important to understand the full story before jumping to conclusions. For some reason, we believe we have the right to judge one another based on anecdotal evidence. I want to challenge this practice. Ask questions. Be able to understand the full picture before we become so outraged that our anger blinds us to reality. Once the anger takes over, reasonability is lost.
Encourage people who think differently from you to express their opinions. The next time someone presents an opposing viewpoint, do not judge them. Ask questions. Have a civil conversation. Do not debate them; you are more than likely not going to sway their opinion, just like you know that they likely will not sway yours. But perhaps you can understand one another. That is the only way forward as I see it.
This message I am trying to communicate is not meant to be political. It’s far from radical. Problems have never been solved by shouting into a void. But the internet is good for that. Perhaps I should have learned from my own lesson.