Update: Part II of this post is here
It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby. (Noam Chomsky)
As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups. (Robert Sapolsky)
The name of this post probably surprised you. It was supposed to be ‘how to talk to people you disagree with.’ But the more I started researching this topic, I realized that title wasn’t right.
I’ve felt the need to write about this for months, and it’s not just because of our current political climate, although that’s a big part of it. More and more, we are a culture of talkers. We love the sound of our own voices, to debate, to argue, to have the last word. We love these things right up until they make us question our own dearly-held beliefs.
Doubts and flaws are all well and good, but they belong to the other guy. We know things, and we have the funniest quips to win the argument.
The problem with all this is apparent enough (if you checked the news or your news feed anytime in 2017 you probably agree) but we keep doing it. I’d like to examine why we do, how even the most well-intentioned people can get like this, and how we can do better.
Our boxes, our selves
We don’t like uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable and we quickly search for a way to get rid of it. Some of this is unavoidable. Our brains simply can’t process all the information going past us at light speeds, so we use categories to help make sense of it all. That’s not inherently bad. It’s how we identify something we’ve never seen as a chair.
Categorization gets dangerous when we start to use it as a shortcut for other things, like getting to know people, or figuring out who we are.
We reach for the simplicity of boxes because they make sense, but people and the world don’t always make sense. We don’t want to spend time thinking about that, or being afraid, so we grab onto a cause or a stereotype and stop thinking.
When these shortcuts become the building blocks of our lives, we build them on foundations of sand. But usually we don’t realize this until it’s late in the game, and we don’t want to look stupid or start over. Instead we cling harder.
One thing I’ve noticed in some discussions I’ve been part of is how much people care about issues that don’t seem to immediately affect them. It’s pretty common – the straight person who’s never been in the armed services angry about the transgender military ban, or the rural resident who’s never met an immigrant who worries about illegal immigration.
Why do we get so heated over issues that don’t immediately affect us? They might, especially if a wider law is passed, but statistically the chances are low. Yet these and other issues become top of mind, ones that divide friends and even families, sometimes forever.
In his 1984 book The Psychology of Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses why we identify so strongly with things that don’t seem, in the big scheme of things, to change our daily lives.
Cialdini tells the story of a war veteran recovering in a hospital ward. The man remained silent for 30 years. One day as he heard a game on the radio being played by his hometown team, he sprang to life and yelled at the radio. After that moment he never spoke again. Why, of all things, should that have made him speak? Cialdini says it’s because he didn’t see it as a game. The vet thought he was the one losing the game, had gotten a bad call.
“When viewed in this light, the passion of the sports fan begins to make sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent form and artistry. The self is at stake.”
These things aren’t just abstract issues affecting small groups. They’re lenses that change how we see the world. Or maybe more accurately, they’re mirrors in which we see ourselves.
Successful politicians and public figures have mastered these portrayals, pitching issues and their own candidacies as reflections of a voter’s psyche.
The reason it seems like we can no longer have rational, calm discussions about many of these issues is because for most of us, they are not rational.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes no one is above it.
“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means,” he says.
“And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.”
If we all cling to our issues, using them as building blocks for our very identities, is there any hope for discussion or listening between people who think differently?
Forming identities is part of who we are as people, and we could no sooner leave behind these identities than we could cease to become human. It’s not wrong to find meaning or identity in things like gender, race, religion or politics.
The problem occurs when we can’t see around them, when we have certain ideas about people from other groups, or even our own groups, that grow so strong that we decide we don’t need to meet them, to listen to them, to hear their stories. The ideas become the people.
The Us and the Them
In a recent article for Nautilus, author Robert Sapolsky discusses how easy it is to divide the world into an us and a them. Science shows it’s actually hard-wired into the way we think and react.
“Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture.
We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality.
Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.
When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this.
Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.”
Haidt, the social psychologist, has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.”
All this psychology and theory is helpful for understanding our blind spots, but how does it apply to real life? Can we face Uncle So and So easier across the table at Thanksgiving because of any of it? And where do we start?
Last summer I was camping in the mountains with my family. We had just finished a series of hikes into the North Cascades. Everyone was dirty and tired, but it was that content, wrung-out tired won only after a long, hard day of playing in the woods. A burn ban was in effect, so we huddled around a lamp instead of a campfire, toasting s’mores over a portable stove.
“So,” someone said as we settled in to talk – talking is our television in the mountains, and it’s nice – “what does everyone think about the NFL protests?”
Silence reigned around the fire as we made our calculations. It was a mixed crowd around the lamp/fire that night, not a comfortably homogeneous group of politically conservative or liberal people who held the same opinions. We only saw each other a few times a year. Yet we were friends and family. We wanted to say what we really thought and felt, but how could we do so?
That experience made me pause. Somehow, the easy camaraderie of conversation had become a field of land mines, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. And for these people, I cared.
They weren’t anonymous images on the other side of a screen, they were people I’d known for years, who sat at my wedding, who gave me furniture for my house and helped me make eggs for breakfast that morning. We don’t agree on every social and political issue and probably never would, but our relationships transcended that. How do we navigate these relationships now, in 2017?
It’s easy, usually, to say what we think when perusing message boards and social media. Like shots fired from a military drone, our words are chosen with less regard for our targets, because we can’t see them. We can talk to more people than ever before, most who we’ll never see in person, and if the conversation upsets us, we can block, delete, unfriend or ignore.
“I can’t talk about things like religion or politics,” friends have told me recently, “Because it’s never a conversation. It just becomes a shouting match. Everyone assumes things about me before I’ve even started, so I figure, what’s the point?”
“Twitter is the worst,” someone else said. “It’s just people one-upping each other over and over. There’s no room to discuss anything. It’s like you get points for being mean.”
So now what?
Right about now, this may seem dark. Our biases are hard-wired into our thinking, and studies show our reactions are usually visceral, immediate and unconscious. We can’t necessarily think our way out of them. But we’re not helpless.
We can be aware that something beyond our conscious choice is shaping our thinking and the way we perceive the world. Many people don’t think about bias, or they think everyone is biased except them. That’s not true. You are biased. I am biased. We all have lenses – let’s accept it and work on it.
We can take time to build and nurture relationships in real time, with people who might be different from us. Not to get them to convert to something or to win an argument, but just because we want to know them. No one is born with their views, they learn them. Life shapes them. So how did they get there?
Individuals and relationships are the antithesis to the Us/Them way of seeing the world. When we see someone as a person, it’s a lot harder to make them a box or a category. Your cause and beliefs may be very different than a friend’s, but it’s not your list of talking points that will change minds or increase empathy. Just knowing you does that.
Finally, we can try a little more listening. It sounds like a small solution because it is. It’s not a substitute for policy change or fixing racism or ending poverty. But big things start with small things. Governments and organizations are just people. Someone who seems worlds away from you might not be that different, if you knew more of their story. That’s the beginning of big change.