When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir? –credited to John Maynard Keynes
So I have a question.
Could you spend an extended amount of time with someone who had the exact opposite political views as you?
I’m not talking about just Democrat:Republican here, I’m talking about real differences. I mean if you both were tasked with constructing society from the ground up, you’d have completely different looking products. Fundamental differences that boil down to questions of humanity’s nature and personal beliefs about control and the necessity thereof.
Sure, you say like a reasonable adult, we just wouldn’t talk politics.
I really do mean a long amount of time here, there are only so many times you can talk about basic background questions and current events before you have to begin asking deeper questions. Questions that will invariably stray into the forbidden Politics and Religion zone very quickly. I want to know why what we all know happens next happens.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2008. I think. Honestly I really don’t clearly remember the exact timeline, but we’re all either approaching or have already crossed the decade mark on how long we’ve been diligently disclosing all our personal lives in some form or another on the Internet. From Facebook all the way back to Usenet we’ve constructed identities for ourselves on the net and then used it to interact with others in some way or another. 2006 onward though, we began to link our personal and cyber selves in a way that we didn’t before. Now instead of being Flowerygirl28 or SpartanxXx we are simply Cheryl and Rebecca. Now you know that Dave looks like a normal dude with questionable taste in shorts instead of a caricature of John Lennon. Now instead of finishing a conversation and vanishing into the chat ether or another forum, we awkwardly continue to stay in contact, whether someone questioned the humanity of the other person’s lineage or not. It messed with our heads. (Yes, I know there is a not inconsiderable amount of the population that is not on social media or only uses it in a pseudonymous capacity, but I’m talking majority here)
One way that it messed with our heads is that it is rapidly short-circuiting how we view and process political situations in our country and world. On a lot of fronts, The Discourse has been either completely upended or is nearly unbearable in it’s idiosyncratic intensity. Rampant tribalism and echo chambers create cannons that we fire at the others, more for our own side’s benefit than any real attempt at communication. The popular word for this is “virtue signalling” which simply means looking Correct to people who you hold capable of judging your character and morals. Sharing that John Wayne quote signals to other conservatives that you are on their side and rallies them around you. Commenting on that post about cruelty in the meat industry places you “fighting” with other vegetarian and animal rights activists. The act itself may not do much good, but it tells other tribe members that you are with them and fighting the good fight. You aren’t part of them! (the rest of humanity outside your group, the exact labels are unimportant)
Alright we all know that bit. Yet, that’s not the only thing that happens on the internet, or in real life.
Again, I return to the Religion and Politics saw. There are things we don’t talk about in polite society. There are points in our life where it would be inconvenient to expose differences of opinion because it could interfere with other aspects of our lives. Our work, our church (ha), our school, our rec-league basketball, our family gathering, and the list continues. So like reasonable beneficiaries and signers of the great social contract, we discreetly keep these things from either being revealed through our own behavior or affecting our perceptions and opinions of others.
Haha nope, that’s bullshit.
See social media has made it so that if you have any presence online at all, anyone who connects to it knows where you stand. Or at least they think they know. And the rest of society has been busily shaping real life to fit that paradigm. The news is constantly full of stories of people’ s online lives bleeding into their real life. People are fired for political stances, sexual proclivities, and preferences of all sorts all the time. Relationships, familial, marital, and fraternal, collapse every day because of sudden revelations of “secret” activities. Why wouldn’t we? Human curiosity and survival instincts lead us to seek out additional information about others in order to better safeguard ourselves against negative outcomes. Businesses aren’t eager to employ troublesome people, no one wants to date a Nazi, and you really should just check to make sure that babysitter doesn’t spend all their time partying because they may not effectively guard your child and we all know that people who party are inherently irresponsible never mind your own past I mean you really should know because some of the stuff you did and if that person is doing those things you don’t want them around your children and-STOP! RATIONALIZING!
I’m not really here to talk about social media. I want to talk about politics.
I’m going to get real here for a second. I share common political opinions with very few friends and or family. Most of my personal conversations involve me choosing not to address certain comments at certain times in order to maintain peace and communication. Also from no small amount of fear of social reprisal. You know, peer pressure.
For the last year or so, I’ve slowly transitioned from arguing with my nominally leftist friends about how the President should not have so much power and why are they suddenly on the side of federal law enforcement to arguing with my nominally right wing friends about how we absolutely should criticize the President and what the hell happened to their prudence and critical approach. Something I am incredibly struck by is how every conversation is started with this simple precept: What you think is wrong, and I am going to convince you it is.
Makes sense, politics has a profound effect on everyone’s lives, no matter who they are. If you believe the wrong thing, and manage to get it accepted into the system, then it can have a deeply negative effect on many people. So in the interest of the public good and personal growth, the Discourse must happen. Two independent, amateur social scientists have gathered to compare hypotheses, may the best theory win.
Unfortunately that’s not how it ever turns out.
What follows is generally a posturing display, each spewed fact/opinion a beat upon the arguer’s chest. They are calling to others in the room, whether their are any or not, to back them up. Calling all cars, we have a WrongThinker! Get ’em boys!
Assuming these mutual expressions of shock and indignation fail to lead to widespread social revolution, a meager simulation of an argument plays out. These arguments may start from a place of good faith, but they rarely stay there. The nature of argument requires that both sides assume the other is telling the truth to the best of their ability. That they are informed from sources that are also credible, and that no one involved is intentionally misleading the other.
That assumption is rarely present in these simulated arguments. Because more than just the argument is at stake.
See no one ever actually expects to have any real outcome from these arguments, because everyone knows the endgame. Essentially, being convinced and abandoning your position means abdication of something fundamental to your character, your person-hood, it means taking up the other’s position, like being pulled up a cliff. It means being pulled from your crowd to the other crowd. It means giving up your identity in a way that is rarely comfortable.
Either that or getting all aloof and intellectual and look at where that gets you. Turns out, giving credibility to arguments doesn’t just separate you from one crowd, but from most of them.
You see, partisan thinking is incredibly comfortable, it’s safe and easy. You don’t even realize you’ve fallen into it, because the marketing is that good. I’ve fallen down both holes and I will say it is infinitely more relaxing. I mean, we all have shit to do, we can’t just be wrapped in all that considering and analysis all the time. If we all just sat around analyzing ourselves and our methods nothing would get done right?
Yeah, that gets us slightly better farmers and that’s about it.
Development, personal and societal is built on resolved conflicts and new theorems about how we might do better.
It is forged by dreamers casting iron and realists tempering the result. It’s scientists getting killed and soldiers surviving. It’s hours and hours and days spent with sheets of paper, only to be met with the cold rock of reality and then accounting for that rock. Trying again. Trying harder. Failing harder and harder until you can’t fail any worse and begin failing better. Development, progress, and the continual good of all is pretty much the only goal that makes sense in every culture (I see some people bristling at that assertion, and it is an assertion. I say to them, fight me, make us stronger.)
Now, all that’s really nice to say, but I really want to encourage people to do two things. First, accept that arguments are not personal, but typically have personal consequences. Understand that when you begin an argument, you are asking the other person to go toe-to-toe with you with their social/professional/political/spiritual lives on the line. If they don’t want to ante up, then don’t hold that against them. Don’t assume agreement from silence. Assume that all involved are telling the best truth they can, and that if you start from different positions, you must work harder to find common ground to hold the Discourse on. People aren’t generally stupid, but they are fragile and quick to savage behavior to defend those weaknesses, yes even them.
Second, do not run from arguments, welcome them. I started this post because I noticed that everyone has the impulse to convince others, to chime in and compare viewpoints, yet so often this turns into posturing and defense quickly. For the good of the crowd. This ignores the conflict and turns the entire encounter into a “Look how idiotic this person is! Everyone come and make fun of them for me!” moment. However, people still have that impulse, that impulse to ask “Hey, I thought that stick was red, why do you think it is blue?” even with the personal stakes being what they are. This is a good thing.
Please, just don’t take it so hard. The internet life is filled with conflict and angry people. While very real things may be on the line, no bomb disposal expert ever got anywhere by being angry and irrational at the bomb. If someone calls you a horrible name, that’s on them. But your ingress into their mental territory should have been motivated by a positive and forgiving effort to understand. Not a sarcastic attempt to dishonestly discredit their argument by assuming a mock-ignorance.
If we all keep earnestly engaging, understanding that there are people behind what we say, we will all profit.
Anyway, stay good out there. We have enough problems without making others into them. Give someone who needs it a hug today.