On politics, divisiveness and humble suggestions for doing it better

Several years back I wrote my first book called Arguing with Friends. I was inspired by my observation that many people simply don’t know how to disagree with each other in a manner that allows them to simultaneously keep their friends and their convictions.

If that was a problem back when I wrote that book, it seems to be reaching near catastrophic levels now. Fear not, though; I may have a solution.

A recent poll indicates that about 16% of Americans have stopped talking with a family member or close friend because of the election; 13% have ended a relationship. According to the story, at least one couple has actually divorced after 22 years of marriage because the husband voted for Trump! I can only assume there were other issues lurking under the surface that also contributed to their divorce. At least, I hope that’s the case.

This is staggering on multiple levels. First, that the numbers are so high. I would imagine that, in a general civilized and reasonable society, some minor fraction of the population might get up in arms over any given election – and relationships might suffer – but we’re in the double digits!

Second, the election was, for the most part, not really consequential. It’s not like some of the states were voting to split from the rest of the country, or that the country was voting to invade another country. In the grand scheme of things there really wasn’t a whole lot at stake in terms of specific issues facing their great nation.

Ah, but there’s our first stop in this article. In reality not a whole lot was at stake, but it seemed that the majority of Americans believed that virtually the entire future of their nation was at stake. It was a choice between a thriving nation and a descent back into the stone age. A choice between freedom and enslavement. The public was constantly barraged by an onslaught of messages proclaiming, “the end is near, the end is near.”

And the messages seemed to come from both sides of the political isle. Republicans claimed Clinton would ruin the nation, and Democrats claimed Trump would ruin the nation. Not merely, “lead us off track” or even “fail to maximize our nation’s potential,” but full on end-of-the-world, sky-is-falling, doom-and-gloom over the top hyperbole more suitable to children’s fairy tales and Michael Bay movies.

How did this happen? How did the issues become so divisive with everybody believing that the very fate of human civilization was at stake in this (mostly) inconsequential election?

To answer that question, let’s turn back to the article I linked to. Here are a few quotes, see if you can notice the trend.

“Once people found out I had voted for Trump the stuff started flying,” said William Lomey, 64, a retired cop in Philadelphia who no longer speaks with a friend he grew up with after they clashed on Facebook over the election. “I questioned him on a few things, he didn’t like it, he blew up and left me a nasty message and we haven’t talked since.”

Sue Koren, 57, a Clinton supporter in Dayton, Ohio, said she can barely speak to her two Trump-backing sons and has unfriended “maybe about 50” people on Facebook who support the president.

Many personal conflicts erupt on social media. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, 17 percent said they had blocked a family member or close friend on social media because of the election, up 3 percentage points from October.

LeShanda Loatman, 35, a black Republican real estate agent from Delaware, has severed ties on social media with former co-workers and old friends over their support for Trump and their criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement against violence and racism against blacks.

“I haven’t come across anybody who was openly belligerent about the election or Black Lives Matter movement when I was out in public. It’s just on Facebook,” said Loatman, who voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

If you answered “social media” you win. Certainly other factors were at play, but the role of social media seems unavoidable. The centrality of Facebook and Twitter in our modern political discourse if undeniable. Politics is largely about spreading a message, and social media is the preeminent message spreading machine these days.

In fact, social media is so powerful that even mainstream media often feels the need to include some “tweets” in news stories to document people’s reactions. We are so accustomed to circling back to social media to “reflect” on current events that even traditional media feels they have to tap into that instinct. In fact, some news stories – such as this one – are exclusively about how celebrities and politicians interact with each other on social media.

But the intrinsic nature of social media almost inevitably contributes to the problems. How so? Consider this; Facebook has in the range of 2 billion users. That’s roughly a quarter of the earth’s population! That’s a lot of people with a platform that (theoretically) reaches the rest of the globe. The greatest attraction of Facebook is the fact that you – yes, even you – can have a voice on the global stage.

But the greatest attraction of Facebook also, unfortunately, backfires. You have a voice, yes, but so do almost 2 billion other people. Your voice gets drowned in the noise. I still remember when we only had about 4 channels on TV, so our choice of which “voice” to listen to sometimes boiled down to whichever station had the clearest signal that day. Competition was scarce. Today, I am bombarded with so many voices that it’s impossible to figure out which ones to listen to.

With so much competition, the drive to garner clicks – our desire to stand out – inspires some creative tactics. One of the most tried-and-true tactics is the use of emotional appeals. As humans we are naturally drawn to information that is more likely to make us happy, angry, scared or any other of a plethora of emotions. We are far less likely to be drawn to information that isn’t particularly emotionally appealing, even if it really is important.

The emotional appeal has lead to two problems. First, anything newsworthy must contain an emotional element. This is why protests and petitions get so much attention. This is why the women’s march got so much attention. This is why infinitesimally small groups like the transgender community can get such an unfathomably disproportionate coverage in the media; their story is emotionally charged.

The stories that get the most attention are those with a strong emotional slant to them. With time we get used to the idea that reading the news is an inherently emotional experience. Eventually we associate the issues covered by the news media with strong emotions and, like Pavlov’s dog, we instinctively activate the emotional part of our brains any time these issues come up.

So every time we end up thinking about these issues, reading about these issues, or discussing these issues with others, we automatically enter with an emotionally charged frame of reference. How likely is it, do you think, that those conversations are going be handled with tact and civility when they automatically start off emotionally charged?

But there’s a second problem with social media. Even if it ain’t true, as long as it is likely to inspire an emotional reaction it will almost certainly make its way through the world of social media. The fake news problem on social media was a source of repeated discussion in this recent election. But that’s not half the problem. It’s gotten so bad that even the mainstream media is starting to generate its own fake news as this article thoroughly describes. In the face of emotionally charged fake news on social media, otherwise reputable mainstream news sources have no choice but to take some “artistic license” with their stories in a vain attempt to keep up. After all, if they cannot find some way of turning rather mundane daily news into “the issue that is defining our generation and dividing the nation” then they’ll just end up losing readers and viewers.

Everything must be a sign of the end of the world!

Which, inevitably, means that large portions of society – feeding at the trough of social media and just-trying-to-keep-up-with-them mainstream media – eventually learns to turn just about every issue into an emotionally charged issue. We are so hooked on clicking the sensational links that we end up consuming the media equivalent of a steady stream of pure sugar. Not healthy, folks!

And the fact that this problem is intrinsically tied to social media was even alluded to in the article. One interviewee observed, “I haven’t come across anybody who was openly belligerent about the election or Black Lives Matter movement when I was out in public. It’s just on Facebook.”

Indeed it is.

How to get out of this mess?

A proposal, part one

Get off social media.

Any questions?


Part two

Truth needs to matter once again. In theory people are now more passionate about the truth than every before. Republicans were desperately interested in the truth about Clinton’s email servers. Democrats were desperately interested in the truth about Trump’s assault of women. In one sense we cannot get enough of truth and we are hyper-vigilant about potential misrepresentations of truth from those we disagree with.

And yet we seem to have a very mixed relationship with truth. While we are keen to point out the problems with “your” views – with the implicit message that you ought to change your way of thinking because it does not correspond with truth – we still instinctively cling to “my” truth when you have the audacity to try and change my way of thinking. This is a throw-back to the heyday of Relativism; the idea that there is no absolute truth, each of us makes our own truth.

That’s one of those ideas that sounds really trendy, and many people still like to claim they are Relativists, but our dedication to Relativism is extremely fickle and self-serving. Try to change my mind and I’ll claim I’m a Relativist (e.g. “don’t impose your morality on me”) but when I am trying to change your mind then my Relativism gets tossed aside like yesterday’s underwear as I suddenly find myself claiming that your views are wrong in some Absolute sense.

The louder and more frequently that social justice warriors and other politically active folks push their views on the rest of us, the more obvious it becomes that the stench we smell is the rotting corpse of Relativism; a philosophy that once captivated society but is not little more than a mistress we visit when it suits us. The very act of trying to affect change – “progress” as it is often called – implies the change is “good” in some objective sense; that we are “progressing” toward something superior to our present circumstances. This is clearly an Absolute claim made by the same people who will claim – from the other side of their mouth – to be Relativists.

Let’s just start to be consistent, shall we?

Truth matters. And there are some things that are true for everybody. It’s not a popular view, but it’s one that we all (especially the most politically vocal on both sides of the fence) implicitly affirm any time we attempt to persuade others.

But the downside of truth is the possibility that we might be wrong. In fact, given the complexity of a lot of these issues it becomes almost certain that at least some part of our belief system simply does not line up with the facts. I include myself in that. Are we willing to accept that? Are we willing to change our views if, Heaven forbid, it turns out that some of them are more true in our minds than they are in the real world?

Before you answer those question, though, ask yourself this question: When you are trying to persuade somebody else to change their mind, do you expect them to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong? And if you do expect that kind of openness on their part then isn’t it the pinnacle of hypocrisy to refuse to open your own mind to that same possibility with respect to your own beliefs?

We need to begin with Truth and recognize that our views, beliefs, opinions and preferences must take on a subservient role to Truth. Truth is the master, we are the student.

So sit down and pay attention!

Part three

If we are going to take truth seriously – and allow our views to be shaped by it – then the next most obvious question is, “how do we determine what is true?”

This, unfortunately, is a much longer subject than I can cover in a single blog post. And this post is already long enough. Here are a few guidelines for you to consider:

  • Be a good thinker. Too many people these days form their opinions based on their feelings, but so often truth is what it is regardless of our feelings. I don’t much “like” the fact of the Nazi Holocaust, but my dislike doesn’t suddenly bring those millions of people back from the dead.
  • Learn to ask good questions. We need to learn how to evaluate the evidence properly, and take the evidence as seriously as it warrants.
  • Stop being swayed by public opinion. Who cares if your views are in the minority, you might still be right. And if your views are in the majority that also doesn’t matter. Truth is not democratic.
  • Don’t blindly trust experts either. Unfortunately too many credentialed experts are driven – either by ideology or some kind of need to be seen and heard – to engage in shoddy research with sensational conclusions. This may get them some publicity, but it does not edify the general public.
  • Never blindly trust media. Neither social media nor mainstream media deserves our trust anymore. Find the sources of the media information and read it for yourself.
    • If the media claims that “so-and-so said…” then find the actual quote for yourself instead of trusting the media to accurately represent it.
    • If the media says, “science says,” then find the article it references, and read it for yourself. Almost every time I do this I discover that the headline is either skewed or flatly false.
  • Think carefully about how to differentiate truth from error. There is no one-size-fits-all equation to do this so you need to examine issues independently. Some issues require science, others philosophy, some need history, others require economics.

These are some general steps to learning how to discern truth so that you can alter your views appropriately. At the end of the day, though, remember that it is truth – not your opinions or the shouting of the masses – that should determine your views.

If we take these three steps seriously – get off social media, decide that truth is more important than your opinions and feelings, and learn how to discern truth – then those are some great first steps to masterfully navigating our discussions with others. Perhaps we can begin to heal some of these broken relationships.

Maybe I should get into relationship counselling…

[Final note; I deliberately misspelled “aisle” as “isle” just to see if my editor is still reading my blog posts and reading them carefully. Easter eggs, anybody?]