Political Disagreement - Choosing Understanding And Tolerance Over Hatred

Since a recent meeting with a close friend I’ve been thinking a lot about his caution concerning my views of those who hold political and moral views different from mine.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about revising what I think of the mostly white, rich, Christian, (ultra)conservative, Republicans, WRCCRs (pronounced “wreckers”) for short, currently in power in the US. I’ve decided I want to shed my hatred for them and their beliefs and values, and replace it with a deeper understanding of why they hold the views they do.

Socially, I’m looking for common ground as a basis for a better dialog when I encounter them, in person or via media. Personally, I’m looking to replace my hatred based on judgment with a tolerance based on understanding. All things considered I think this approach is the only reasonable option. "Those folks," as my friend reminded me, aren’t going anywhere and their thinking isn’t going to change easily or quickly. My hatred won’t free up or change their thinking and it leaves me ineffective and unhappy.

To change my thinking I’m relying on my old methods but have also added one I recently found. It’s contained in a new approach to journalism:

It has become clear to me, from the above article and from the admonishments I’ve received from my friend and conservative acquaintances on social media, that the hatred I feel towards the WRCCRs who disagree with me is a characteristic of someone involved in an “intractable conflict.”

Amanda Ripley, author of the essay linked above, “Complicating the Narratives,” describes IC as follows:

Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book The Five Percent, and it’s very similar to the kind of wicked feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

Despite Ripley’s nod to the wildly popular “my brain made me do it” approach, which I’ve argued against herehereherehere, and elsewhere on my blog, Ripley is right about the power of emotional responses to charged interactions. I, that is, me, my entire embodied self, becomes a very different person when I’m exposed to or just think about the beliefs, values and actions of WRCCRs.

I lose my normal tendency to understand and tolerate others when confronted with persons or groups different from me, for example Christians and Muslims in their own right, other societies, cultures and sub-cultures, or races. As a trained anthropologist, someone in an inter-racial marriage, and someone having had years of cross-cultural exposure and international travel, I’ve learned to do this. But when it comes to the WRCCRs all that goes out the window and I allow my hate to get turned on and dialed up all the way! I don’t want this anymore. It is unreasonable, not useful, and harmful to me. I want a new and better way to respond.

First, how did I get this way about WRCCRs? Exactly how does one get drawn into the trap of IC? I’ve been an unwavering liberal Democrat since Nixon became president. I didn’t think much about politics after that except on election days when I would always vote Democrat. Before that I liked Kennedy for some nebulous reason but was too young to know why or vote.

Since entering retirement in 2007 I have taken the time to look closely at U.S. politics, especially the history of the Republican Party since the mid-1960s. In doing so I found their values and campaign and electoral tactics despicable. I looked closely at both sides of the reporting and commentary on Republicans courting the Southern white vote after the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965); gerrymandering that has helped the GOP win close elections in all but one instance in the past one hundred years; Nixon’s late 1960s Southern Strategy and “silent majority;” and Reagan’s 1980 Neshoba, Mississippi County Fair “state’s rights” dog whistle speech to Southern white racists. I could go on but see herehereherehere, and here for more examples, if you must. Eventually I passed my judgment on them – I hated them and their money-and-power-over-people preferences, and the white privilege they stood for.

My judgment of WRCCRs was less of a decision about their preferred economic policies and modes of governance; it was a matter of their moral system. That is, their claims of how people should treat each other and the things they actually did to others. This matter of morality was a tipping point for me. When, in the late 1960s, WRCCRs’ views moved away from focusing on economics and governance toward an approach to politics having an immoral vote-getting, win-at-all-costs strategy, I made my decision to hate them. I still believe in the necessity of a good, moral conservatism in any democracy, but over the past half century the GOP has not been that.

When I decided to hate the WRCCRs I stepped on the slippery slope of closed-mindedness. I had become a self-righteous zealot no different from the WRCCRs I hated. I was just under a different moral flag, a member of a different tribe. But once the decision has been made to vilify and demonize the other, and one concludes that they and their leadership are leading one’s country and its citizens to ruin, one is going from simple disagreement to utter hatred and into a characteristic of intractable conflict. Ripley says we have then become entrapped:

In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.

Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.”

Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

So, what is so bad about that, you ask? Hate the bastards, rail about them to their faces and to others, loudly demonstrate against them in the streets, then vote against them at every election. Right? Well, I had not stooped to the depth of cursing them to their faces or taking to the streets, but I sure felt like doing so. But I did let loose my pen upon them on my blog. Ripley offers a better response for journalists and the rest of us:

The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “[E]veryone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch [on the abortion IC]. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”

So, if we choose the path to more creative thinking and wise solutions, what should we expect? Ripley says:

In every case, the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be certain of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter.

So, what should we do to pull ourselves out of intractable conflicts and equip ourselves to “wade in and out of the muck” that divides us in a way that does not poison our thinking or destroy us and our society? Ripley offers this:

The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.

There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.

The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”

In the midst of conflict, our audiences are profoundly uncomfortable, and they want to feel better. “The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America.

Complexity counters this craving [for simplicity], restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting — and true.

Right now, half of Democrats and Republicans see members of the opposing party as not just ill-informed but actually frightening, according to the Pew Research Center. Republicans think Democrats are much more liberal than they actually are — and vice versa.

In reality, explicitly racist beliefs crisscross party boundaries. In a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly a third of Hillary Clinton supporters described black people as more “violent” and “criminal” than white people, and a quarter said black people are lazier. No party (or person) is without bias.

And it’s not just Democrats who worry about offending people; in fact, 28% of Republicans with no more than a high school education say people need to be more careful with their language to avoid offense (double the share of Republican college graduates who say so). “There’s no limit to how complicated things can get,” as E.B. White wrote, “on account of one thing always leading to another.”

There is a business case for complexity, too. Right now, FOX News and MSNBC assume their viewers want outrage, which is to say, simplicity. And many do. But what about all the people who aren’t watching? Many Americans have tuned out of the news, demoralized by the sniping, depressed by the hopelessness. What would happen if they one day stumbled upon a different kind of story — one that intrigued them instead of terrifying them?

Meanwhile, as online news sites continue to struggle to make ends meet with clickbait headlines and ad revenue, more outlets are turning to subscribers to help fund their reporting. That means they have to shift from a one-night stand business model to a long-term relationship with readers — which has to be based on something deeper than cats and Trump tweets. Indignation will always be the easiest way to lure readers, but by itself, it’s not enough to make people pay for the privilege of coming back day after day.

So, how do we complicate the narrative? Does it involve compromise? Perhaps. But can there be compromise when it comes to freedom, justice, and equality? One is either experiencing freedom, justice, and equality, or one is not. Yes, there must be checks on the abuses of freedom, justice and equality, but it seems there can be no partial meting out or compromise where some groups and individuals in society have more or less freedom, justice and equality than others. But what are we to do when one side, the WRCCRs, make efforts to restrict freedom, justice and equality to mostly rich, white, Christian, conservative, Republicans and Liberals seek the widest possible distribution of freedom, justice and equality in society? On this most fundamental of issues isn’t one side more humane and moral than the other?

Ripley's guidance is primarily for journalists but there is much in what she says we can all learn from. The following is an abridgment of Ripley’s suggestions:

1. Amplify Contradictions. There are many things that journalists cannot do. But we can destabilize the narrative. We can remind people that life is not as coherent as we’d like. Otherwise, the spiral to simplicity is all but certain: “As the conflict progresses, the narratives get skinnier,” Cobb says.

2. Widen the Lens. Start a bigger conversation. Turn a disagreement into an inquiry. Starting in the 1990s, Stanford political science professor Shanto Iyengar exposed people to two kinds of TV news stories: wider-lens stories (which he called “thematic” and which focused on broader trends or systemic issues — like, say, the causes of poverty) and narrow-lens stories (which he labeled “episodic” and which focused on one individual or event — say, for example, one welfare mother or homeless man).

Again and again, people who watched the narrow-lens stories on the welfare mother were more likely to blame individuals for poverty afterwards — even if the story of the welfare mother was compassionately rendered. By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame government and society for the problems of poverty. The wider the lens, the wider the blame, in other words.

In reality, most stories include both wide and narrow-lens moments; a feature on a welfare mother will still invariably include a few lines about the status of job-training programs or government spending. But as Iyengar showed in his book Is Anyone Responsible?, TV news segments are dominated by a narrow focus. As a result, TV news unintentionally lets politicians off the hook, Iyengar wrote, because of the framing of most stories. The narrow-lens nudges the public to hold individuals accountable for the ills of society — rather than corporate leaders or government officials. We don’t connect the dots.

Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if journalists don’t then zoom out again — connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a larger problem — then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.

3. Ask Questions that Get to Peoples' Motivations. Mediators spend a lot of their energy on this idea of digging underneath the conflict. They have dozens of tricks to get people to stop talking about their usual gripes, which they call “positions” — and start talking about the story underneath that story, also known as “interests” or “values.”

Opposing Obamacare is a position; a belief in self-sufficiency is, for many people, the value underlying their position. Whether you agree or not, these deeper motivations matter far more to the debate than the facts of the conflict (and also happen to be more interesting).
People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior.

Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.

I strongly disagree with Haidt on his biologizing of human behavior in his book, his subordination of reasoning to emotion, and his view that Liberals care less about loyalty, authority and sanctity than do Conservatives. See my critique of Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind here.

But I do take Ripley’s point below that we have to be mindful of and sincerely consider all the moral foundations listed by Haidt – care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, sanctity - when we engage those we disagree with.

Conservatives (and conservative media, I’d add) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s dis- loyalty to America, his cabinet members and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency and unkindness, because those are the notes they most like to play.)

If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators. “People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way,” McCulloch says. “In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, ‘How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?’” Those questions may seem touchy feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them.

“You see people kind of blink and go, ‘I never thought of it that way.’”

These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought.

4. Listen More, and Better. “When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard,” says Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi and the co-founder of Resetting the Table. “It’s both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking.” Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen. Trust is mutual, in other words. It’s easier to get trust if you give it.

5. Expose People to the Other Tribe. The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another. The technical term is “contact theory,” but it just means that once people have met and kind of liked each other, they have a harder time caricaturing one another.

Genuine human connections permanently complicate our narratives. Communities with more cross-cutting relationships tend to be less violent and more tolerant, as Diana Mutz, a political scientist professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found.

It is important to widen the lens and connect a particular representative of the “other” tribe to a larger history and story — or the story can end up just confirming the audience’s biases.

But here again, the execution makes all the difference. It’s important, for example, that everyone invited to a community gathering feels like they are on equal footing. The situation needs to be nonthreatening and fair (so you wouldn’t want to host a conversation about race in the whitest neighborhood in town, for example).

There should be moments of levity and shared history or purpose, too. And ideally food. People still bond when they break bread, just as they always have. These details matter a lot — just as much as the substance of the conversation. In the Difficult Conversation’s Lab, Coleman and his colleagues found that conversations go better when people have about 3 positive interactions for every 1 negative encounter. And the tone is usually set in the first few minutes.

The best conversations across differences usually start with personal questions like, “Which of your life experiences have shaped your political views?” When we tell our own story, we tend to speak with more nuance, because real life is not a bumper sticker.

When Spaceship Media works with a newsroom to engage a divided community, they usually start by asking four questions (often through Facebook):

·       What do you think the other community thinks of you?
·       What do you think of the other community?
·       What do you want the other community to know about you?
·       What do you want to know about the other community?

6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully). One of the most well-studied biases in the human portfolio is confirmation bias — our nasty habit of believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.

Worse yet, people exposed to information that challenges their views can actually end up more convinced that they are right.

We judge information based on its source and its harmony with our other beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow: “How do you know if a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease.”

Another tactic is to use graphics instead of text. In a series of experiments, Nyhan and colleagues found that presenting information visually increased the accuracy of people’s beliefs about charged issues — including the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq after the U.S. troop surge and the change in global temperatures over the past 30 years.

Cognitive ease also comes from a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear (such as a report on the devastation of this year’s flu epidemic) is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response (such as a list of pharmacies offering free flu shots along with their hours of operation).

Finally, some simple advice: it’s important not to repeat a false belief in an effort to correct it, Nyhan has found. If people are told Barack Obama is not Muslim, many will remember that he is Muslim. The negative simply vanishes from their minds, because it doesn’t fit with their pre-existing biases. The best way to counter this disturbing tendency is to just state that Obama is Christian — and avoid ringing any false notes altogether.

So, let’s sum up. Here is some parting advice from Ripley:

“People don’t want to be at each other’s throats,” says [John] Sarrouf [of Gloucester Conversations], who convenes conversations about gun rights and other divisive issues, in addition to his work in Gloucester, [Massachusetts, USA]. “People don’t want to be seen as callous. They want to be understood deeply.”

Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism.
Interestingly, it was left to the politician — Senator Marco Rubio, who participated in the town hall despite being wildly outnumbered politically — to explain what was at stake:

“We are a nation of people that no longer speak to each other. We are a nation of people who have stopped being friends with people because [of whom] they voted for in the last election,” he said. “We’re a nation of people that have isolated ourselves politically and to a point where discussions like this have become very difficult.”

And indeed, it was a very difficult night for Rubio. But it could have been so much more than difficult. It could have been revealing.

Journalists [and the rest of us] need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us, journalists and non-journalists, could learn to listen better. As researchers have established in hundreds of experiments over the past half-century, the way to counter the kind of tribal prejudice we are seeing is to expose people to the other tribe or new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.

The approach outlined above is hard, very hard, for anyone – professional journalists and the rest of us. Implementing it in our daily lives will be difficult and uncomfortable. But do we really have a choice to try it or not? I’ve decided I must give it a try.

I leave you for now with the following. English philosopher Bertrand Russell, at age 86, in a television interview, had this to say about truth and dealing with those we disagree with:

Q: Suppose, Lord Russell, that this film were to be looked at by our descendants, like a Dead Sea Scroll in a thousand years’ time, what do you think it is that’s worth telling that world’s generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you have learned from it?

A: I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should wish to say to them is this. When you’re studying any matter or considering any philosophy ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted by either what you'd wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficial social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing I would wish to say. 

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. If we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet. - Bertrand Russell, John Freeman interview on Face To Face, BBC, 1959.


  1. Thank you, Jim. I really like the Bertrand Russell quote!

    1. You’re welcome, Steve. I’ve liked all I have read by Russell. The Wiki piece on him is especially good concerning his early life and the major events in and contributions of his professional life.


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