January 19, 2017

Interacting With Those Who Disagree With Us

The Charlotte Observer headquarters
The Charlotte Observer headquarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When you care deeply about a particular sociopolitical issue (e.g., reproductive rights, LGBT equality, immigration, income inequality, secularism), it can be difficult to see the value of interacting with persons who are on the other side. It is tempting to perceive them as "the enemy" and to view interacting with them as nothing more than an exercise in frustration. The question to consider is whether refusing to interact with them is a healthy course of action in a society. And what about the impulse to take an additional step and prevent ourselves from encountering their views in the first place? Is this a healthy course of action in a civilized society?

Eric Frazier wrote a great opinion piece in The Charlotte Observer on the subject of the transgender restroom wars, the debate raging over North Carolina's HB 2, and the larger issue of our increasingly polarized culture. Clearly, HB 2 and similar laws elsewhere have been generating considerable attention, fueling tribalism and polarization.

Here's the part that resonated with me:
Thanks to today’s hyper-segmented digital media, you can live in your own vacuum-sealed ideological universe where it’s you and other good folk against the “establishment” or the “takers” or the “1 percent” or whomever your cartoon-character bad guys happen to be. Wouldn’t it help – at least a smidgen? – if we occasionally talked to folks on the other side of the barricades?
I can hear the objections now. "Why on Earth would I want to talk to people who disagree with me? They are bigots. They are the enemy!" Right. Because anyone who disagrees with us on issues we consider important is, by definition, a bad person, worthy of little more than our contempt.

I think that Frazier is correct to point to our media as a huge part of this particular problem. It is not just that we seek out mainstream news media outlets that confirm our views; we also use social media to make sure that we are constantly surrounded by the "right sort of people" and rarely encounter those with different perspectives. See someone on Twitter supporting a different political candidate than the one you like? Block her! See a Facebook friend who has a different point of view on the transgender restroom issue? Unfriend him! Anyone who disagrees with you is a moron. In some respects, we have become every bit as bad as the fundamentalist Christians who refuse to associate with anyone who does not attend their church.

Think about what Frazier is suggesting here. It might be good for us to interact with individuals "on the other side" of all sorts of debates. While I think he's absolutely correct on this point, I acknowledge that it seems like an uphill battle to persuade others not to shield themselves from the horrors of encountering people who disagree with them. I know I am overly fond of beating this particular dead horse, but there are a surprising number of people who cannot bring themselves to say "excuse me" when they feel that they are being crowded by a stranger on public transportation and who instead decide to publicly shame the offender. If we cannot convince them that their behavior is ridiculous, what hope do we have of convincing others to speak with persons on the other side of serious socio-political divides?

According to Frazier, when he raised the possibility of interacting with people on the other side of the HB 2 debate with Stephen Peters, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, he received the following reply:
Supporters of this radical law have called us – lesbian, gay, bisexual and, specifically, transgender people – child predators, and some have even threatened us with physical violence. How constructive is that?
I think we can all sympathize with Peters. It does feel pointless to seek constructive dialogue with someone who is engaged in name calling and/or making threats of violence. And yet, I have to believe that there are many supporters of HB 2 who have done and would do no such thing. Perhaps something could be gained from interacting with them.

Frazier certainly does not sound optimistic about this possibility. After noting that it appears that there will be no attempts to have a meaningful dialogue around HB 2, he concludes with the following:
I hope we never reach the point where we as a nation – no matter how divided – see no point in talking to our opponents. At that point, we all lose.
He's right, and I share his hope that we will never reach this point. There will be many subjects on which we will never agree. That is to be expected. The tragedy is when we give up on reason, embrace tribalism, and retreat to our respective camps to prepare for war.
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