Maybe I was younger, maybe those were simpler times, maybe I was socially oblivious, and everyone was actually rolling their eyes at me, but it sure seems like it was way easier to have sane, reasonable conversations about what was going on in the world back in the day. As a relatively conservative Christian growing up in the 1990s, it was fashionable in my circles to disagree with President Bill Clinton and to parrot opinions of radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh, but I still had plenty of friends and acquaintances who didn't see the world the same way, and we had no trouble friskily hashing through ideas and comfortably agreeing to disagree with no hard feelings. Not so today. Why?
Before I take a swipe at answering my own question, let me frame this up a little bit. I don't think all the same stuff I thought when I was a young man. I don't affiliate with either major political party, I oppose almost all war, I think less is more when it comes to government, I'm a huge fan of civil liberties both for myself and people I totally disagree with, and I generally argue for people to be left to their own pursuits even if I'm not a fan of those pursuits, as long as they're not actively messing with other people or their stuff. I understand and respect that many or most who read this article won't agree with me across the board, but I write that so you can take my perspective into account as we move forward.
So why are we worse at disagreeing now than we used to be?
1. We now disagree from a distance.
This is the obvious one. Social media makes empathy harder and negative snap judgments easier; while it can be a great tool for connecting people, it also comes with the sneaky effect of dehumanizing the people behind icons and user names. It eliminates most of the social consequences that come with being a jerk, and makes it possible to simply purge one online identity and create another if something goes wrong. In other words, almost all the natural bumpers that steer our interaction are removed and, not surprisingly, chaos ensues.
Take a minute and Google studies about the relationship between social media and happiness. You're going to have to scroll for a near eternity before you find a study that says it's good for us. We self-report that social media makes us miserable and is making things worse, yet well north of 80% of Americans still use it. Which means that, like an addiction, we know it's hurting us, but we still do it.
All of that said, it's too simplistic to pin all of our failure to disagree well on social media. After all, people could be jerks before the Internet, and people can still treat each other well in the age of the Internet. There's more going on here than just technology; there's something changing in our culture-wide unspoken agreement about how to engage in discourse.
2. We Now Reward Outlandishness and Hostility
Views and likes, the currency of Internet discourse, are wildly democratic in nature, and in some ways that's positive. Anyone with a good thought can now circumvent the old gate-keepers and test their ideas on the open market for free. But on the other hand, thoughtfulness takes deliberation and effort and refining, and not everyone has time for that on the Internet. Things that are loud, eye-popping, hostile or that cater to our biases are a sure way to generate buzz. In the early days of the Internet, these tactics were reserved for soulless ad vendors in the margins; they were a joke, a caricature, but they got attention. And gradually, more and more reputable institutions began mimicking those techniques in search of the almighty click. Those who refused to play by these rules saw their market-share shrink, and what was once a tool for the desperate and dishonest became best practice for anyone big or small who wants to stand out from the crowd.
3. We Now Let the Wrong People Shape the Conversation
I'm a big fan of freedom of speech, and there's no caveat coming here. Everyone owns themselves and no one should need permission from society to express their ideas, even if those ideas are nuts. That said, everyone owns themselves and everyone should be discriminating about who they listen to and who they reject. While that might sound bold, it should be common sense.
As sensible people navigate the world, they read all sorts of cues to decide who should get to speak into their lives and who shouldn't. Most healthy people can tell when they're talking to a healthy person who should be taken seriously, and when they're talking to an unhealthy, manipulative, or malicious person with whom they should be cautious. Such people obviously shouldn't be mistreated, but also shouldn't set the agenda.
In the age of short, faceless online interactions it's harder to discern what kind of person we're dealing with, and it's easy for the loudest, angriest, most brazen, and most manipulative to have an abnormally large say in charting the course of the conversation. Face to face, we might more quickly recognize these characteristics and choose to let the people of better will set the tone for hashing out our disagreements.
4. We Now Disagree in Front of Everyone, So We Feel More Pressure to Win
If I sit down for a long lunch with a person of good-will and we vehemently disagree about a given topic, there's no audience. If we have to agree to disagree, that's that, or if I become convinced of my friend's point of view, I can yield the point and that's that. However, most of our disagreement now happens in front of an electronic audience that gives us real-time feedback. The audience has a vested interest in the outcome, and what was once constructive disagreement now becomes high-stakes sport in a game where each micro-victory gets one side closer to ultimate ideological victory.
It's hard to engage honestly and graciously in such an environment.
5. We Now Employ Demonized Speech Tactics
In the past, only jerks would quickly resort to labelling their conversation partner with some deplorable pejorative if they couldn't agree after a long discussion. Now it's become fashionable to lead with it.
The technique, employed by people of all stripes, is surprisingly effective given its juvenile quality. It goes like this: Call someone a thing that everyone agrees is horrible. Say it again and again so that it starts to stick. Make the accused (who also detests the detestable thing they're accused of being) defend themselves and prove they're not that thing. In doing so they'll kowtow to the accuser's preferences, and if they refuse, that just proves they really were that detestable thing all along and therefore should be marginalized.
This used to be a tactic reserved for the worst of us in only our worst moments, but now it's common practice, and it murders our ability to hash through an idea while also making quick enemies out of potential allies.
6. We're Now Willing to Do Things to Each Other that We Weren't Willing to Do in the Past (So the Stakes Are Higher)
Good disagreement, the kind that gets us closer to making things better for everyone, is further threatened by our new-found willingness to hurt those who disagree with us. Winners reward those who elected them and punish those who didn't. Where we once used the power of the state to preserve freedom and civil liberties, to protect the nation, to do justice, to care for the innocent, and to develop infrastructure, we now use that power to inflict our vision of the world on our neighbors who disagree with us. Both sides warn that if the other side is allowed to gain too much power there will be a frightful reckoning, and both sides are right. It's tough to have thoughtful, honest dialogue with each other when we've gone primal to such a degree.
7. We Don't Want the Same Thing Anymore
Or do we? It seems like there's a huge divide between the God and Country Right and the Redistribute and New Morality Left (and, for that matter, my Live and Let Live Other). Certainly there are differences, but I think most people want the same stuff: Prosperity, peace, a sense of security, time for fun, and to be treated well. The problem isn't that we want different things, it's that the game plan for getting those things is so radically different and seemingly mutually exclusive. It's hard to disagree well when you feel like the other person's happiness means the end of yours.
8. Some Have a Vested Interest in Us Disagreeing Poorly
I've looked at a bunch of explanations for our inability to disagree that are negative reflections on us as individuals. But I'd also submit that it's not entirely our fault. Conflict is great for consolidating power and money, and there are smart people in the game who have a vested interest in stoking the fire of bitter conflict. I've got no accusation for your hard-working local media types, but at the highest level, news media has deteriorated into anger-baiting nonsense. When is the last time any of us felt challenged by our favorite cable news outlet? They don't push us to think, they angrily affirm what we already think. They remind us of how bad and wrong our enemies are. And we love them for it.
Compare news headlines from 20 years ago to today. Twenty years ago, they were filled with things like statements and facts. Today, they're filled with leading questions and reports of tiffs, spats, slams, blasts, take-downs, thought crimes, and scandals. Squabbling has become news in and of itself.
Further, every time we can't sort out our differences, we require the state to do it for us, and they're happy to oblige. Government, which is self-perpetuating, will always be willing to oversee more, and so often we turn to the state to unmake our disagreement stalemates. Simply put, it benefits those in power to have us be unable functionally disagree. When we can't live and let live, we forfeit self-ownership for ourselves and for those with whom we disagree.
And it's not just domestic. We know with certainty that foreign governments have had a laughably easy time riling us up against each other for their own gain.
So what do we do about it? I have three quick suggestions.
1. Make an effort to hang out with people who think differently.
I don't think it's enough just to spend time together; I think it's important to get into the points of disagreement and practice disagreeing well. Both parties will benefit in the art of discourse, and you might discover that they have a point or two you hadn't considered.
2. Choose the personal discipline of giving the benefit of the doubt.
Of course there are some people out there who aren't operating out of goodwill, but there are a whole lot of people on all sides who are. If we assume others overwhelmingly want the same stuff we do, it might be easier to think of them as being like us, which goes a long way toward better disagreement and not having our stomachs in knots all the time about the dark state of the world.
3. Renounce our imagined right to control others.
Disagreeing well is hard when we're trying to dictate to others and when we feel dictated to by them. Of course government exists to protect person and property and to defend the innocent, but it doesn't exist to inflict our social preferences on others. We live in a society where people think very different things and no amount of voting or laws is going to change that. Our only avenue to changing society meaningfully is persuasion and genuine care for people who live and think differently than ourselves. The force of law is a tempting short-cut to get other people to do what we want, but doing so pries open a dangerous Pandora's box.
Disagreeing well is an art that makes it possible to function joyfully and effectively in a pluralistic society, and it's an art I need to cultivate better in myself.