by Zac Gordon, Staff Writer, February 2022

When participating in conversations with individuals who hold different points of view, it is not uncommon for both parties to come out unconvinced by the other’s argument. In fact, they might even leave the conversation with a stronger dislike toward the other person and their point of view than before. So where is the disconnect between making headway in a conversation and making enemies of your family or friends? I believe it is in the way we approach these discussions and debates. It is so difficult for us to understand that what drives us and our moral compass is not the same as what drives others. 

The idea of uniting our country across party lines and finding common ground is an important sentiment, but the notion that this will become a reality with the magical snap of our fingers is an absurdity. America is similar to every other nation in that we are a melting pot of political opinions and viewpoints. As a democracy, we choose our leaders based on our own concerns and the problems we want dealt with; we deliberate over which candidates we think are best qualified to solve those issues. Debating these topics is important and necessary. The crux of the problem is that not knowing how to debate someone often leads us to abandon productive debates and collapse into insults. This is what isolates us from those who disagree with us. This is our problem.

The necessary skills to have when debating begins with learning to appreciate another’s perspective—not agree, but appreciate. It is important to find ways to connect opposing viewpoints and experiences across backgrounds and differences in ideologies. This means stepping into their shoes and finding ways to engage with another’s story and lived experience. It is also helpful to begin conversations by identifying common ground, and not initially focusing on differences of opinion. To have productive conversations and debates, it is critical to generate empathy, enhancing the learning process through the sharing and exchange of emotions, ideas and stories.

In 2017, researchers at Duke University, New York University, and Princeton University devised an experiment in which they asked Democrats and Republicans to read social media posts from an opposing perspective, effectively breaking down the silos which have been created in recent years. Unsurprisingly, the author explained, “We found no evidence that inter-group contact on social media reduces political polarization.” Republicans actually grew more conservative as the experiment progressed and the Democrats similarly grew increasingly liberal. The reason these interactions did not sway social media users is because the arguments used were not tailored to those reading the posts; Republicans were presented with the same Democratic arguments that they always opposed, and merely being exposed to these opinions more often did not result in a perspective change. Additionally, when posting, social media users tend to overvalue the efficacy of the argument we find most compelling and have the false impression that dissenters will be swayed by this same argument. 

For example, on the issue of climate change, research has shown that conservatives and liberals not only differ in their opinions but also in the way they frame the issue. An article in The Atlantic describes this phenomenon through the work of Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes.” Here they find that “liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.” Both sides fail to see that they are framing their argument through a lens which their opponents have already dismissed. Often, the framing of arguments that resonate with us the most is not always going to be the most persuasive for those who don’t already agree. A good rule of thumb is that the presentation of arguments must be adjusted based on the opinions of the person you are debating. 

In 2015, Matthew Feinberg found evidence to support this theory. When conservative legislation was phrased such that liberal values were emphasized, such as equality, Democrats were more likely to accept them. The work of famous psychologist Jonathan Haidt confirms that Republicans are more likely to support an issue like climate change when Democrats frame the issue around a cause Republicans are more likely to care about, like “purity,” likening climate change to the desecration of the earth. The same is found when remodeling liberal legislation in order to emphasize convservative values, such as moral purity or respect for authority. In other words, we must use the morals of opposing groups against them. 

Participating in discussions with individuals who do not agree with us is undeniably a difficult task, especially when these discussions are closely tied to our own values and identities. There are some opinions that are undeniably harmful to groups of people, and these opinions do not deserve the chance to be accepted into dialogue. However, with more mainstream debates where both sides agree there is an issue, such as how to tackle climate change, address school shootings, and deliver mask mandates, both sides need to begin arguing in terms that the opposition will actually listen to. This shift in rhetoric is a step necessary to bridge political factions and unify individuals across all communities. If we don’t learn how to debate while being respectful and empathetic towards others, we will only continue contributing to a fractured society. 

Works Cited:

Resnick, Brian. “Most people are bad at arguing. These 2 techniques will make you better,” Vox  Media, November 2019. 

McElwee, Sean. “How to tap latent conservative support for climate-change policy.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 16, 2014.

Haidt, Jonathan. “The Righteous Mind:Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Pantheon Books, 2012.