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How to Disagree Effectively in Today’s Polarised World
By Ben Jhoty | Sep 16, 2021
In a polarised world, in which many of us are locked in ideological bubbles, it’s increasingly difficult to engage with people whose views differ from your own. Find out why the key to fostering ties, deepening understanding and making the world a better place, begins by getting off your high horse and resisting one of your most primal impulses: the desire to win.
Very few people choose to become radicals. In most cases their circumstances lead them to it. So it was for Dr Lloyd Vogelman. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, for Vogelman, rebellion was a logical response to the oppression of his fellow citizens. Not to actively rail against a racist regime, he believed, would have made him complicit in its policies.
“I describe myself as a recovering extremist,” says Vogelman, a former clinical psychologist, who today is the founder and executive director of consultancy firm Corteks. “I was brought up in a society that was extreme. Apartheid South Africa was extreme, not only in its racism. It was extreme in its authoritarianism as well.”
Vogelman grew up in a small “ultra-Right” mining town outside Johannesburg. “Injustice was so obvious that you had to make a choice,” Vogelman says. “So, I think I was a rebel from a very early age.”
After being a student leader, at 23 he joined the United Democratic Front, a political resistance movement linking hundreds of anti-apartheid organisations. When the Front was banned, he went into hiding and was later named as a co-conspirator in one of South Africa’s largest treason trials, an experience that saw him develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But while his enemy was so stark and oppressive that extremism seemed the only legitimate course of action, Vogelman wasn’t entirely comfortable in his role as a firebrand. A self-described natural outsider, he says that within the liberation movement, he at times felt suffocated and ill at ease with its dogmatism and singular focus.
“Authoritarianism creates an injury in your psyche,” he says. “In your resistance to it, you sometimes behave like your oppressors. You can become equally dogmatic. I think in my opposition, I became extreme as well. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of questioning in myself and others.”
His growing discomfort gradually saw him move away from hard-line activism. At 27, he set up the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, an organisation that focused on promoting human rights and providing treatment for victims of violence.
Today he is the host and founder, along with his cousin, Emile Sherman, an Oscar-winning film producer whose credits include The King’s Speech and Lion, of the podcast The Principle of Charity. In a unique format that’s at odds with the adversarial nature of most mainstream media forums, the podcast sees ideological opponents invited to argue the other’s cause.
For Vogelman the podcast is the latest stop in an astounding philosophical journey, one that’s seen him go from self-professed extremist to rational truth seeker, from someone who saw arguments as contests to be won, to one who prizes them as a tool in increasing understanding between groups. But while it’s easy and perhaps reductive to cast Vogelman’s intellectual transformation as both linear and complete, the journey is, in fact, ceaseless.
“I don’t feel that open-mindedness is something that I’ve achieved,” he says, from his home in Sydney’s Cremorne Point. “For me, it’s a lifelong struggle and it’s a struggle that I enjoy as it forces me to emotionally examine myself and my biases. And it just makes me more intellectually, emotionally and socially rigorous.”
In an increasingly polarised world, the empathy and introspection required to engage constructively with people who hold different views is becoming a dying art. The nature of mainstream media – talk shows, talkback radio, opinion pages – along, of course, with social media, promotes antagonism at the expense of argument, sees polemic masquerade as passion and elevates rhetoric over reasoning.
The obstacles to good argument are formidable. The biggest of all? Your ego. Because before you can engage and argue effectively with others you first need to do something truly heroic: get over yourself.
HIGH AND MIGHTY
Around 15 years ago I was in Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island where I enjoyed an afternoon of mountain biking with a group of other tourists. None of us knew each other but we bonded over the thrills and spills of an afternoon hurtling down tumbling terrain.
Afterwards, myself and another Aussie, let’s call him Patrick, decided to have dinner together and then hit a local pub. Travelling alone, I was glad of the company and for the most part Patrick was just that: great company. But somewhere around our third beer together our conversation hit a previously hidden tripwire. It turned out Patrick was a passionate supporter of John Howard. I, equally passionately, was not.
Suddenly our easy conversation became awkward and stilted before getting a little heated. Patrick argued that Howard was Australia’s benevolent grandfather. I argued that he was cunning and manipulative. Neither of us really listened to what the other was saying. Patrick was implacable. I was immovable. We finished our drinks and said a curt goodbye, a pleasant evening with a stranger ruined because we’d left the safe conversational shores of sport and pop culture and instead run aground by choosing to talk politics. What brought us together – our afternoon of mountain biking – was not enough to withstand the barbs and booby traps inherent in political discussion.
When I look back on the evening now, I still feel a little tightening in my chest, as I often do when reflecting on an argument. I feel frustration that I couldn’t persuade my opponent of my view, even though I refused to hear his. The other thing that sticks with me about that evening is that it was possibly one of the last times I can recall coming face to face with someone whose views so clearly clashed with my own.
The bubbles in which most of us live are filled with friends who often think like us. Social media either functions as an echo chamber in which those with similar opinions congregate or as a digital battlefield in which anonymous keyboard combatants troll and deride each other.
With the community thus splintered, we’re driven inexorably towards polarisation, says social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Kindness Revolution.
“At one level we’re all independent, but that’s overshadowed by the larger sense of our interdependency,” says Mackay, who’s talking to me from his home in Canberra. “You can have, and you need, lots of contests of ideas, lots of robust argument and disagreement and it can all be done in a civilised way if it’s done in the spirit of, we need each other. We’re in the community together.”
The problem, Mackay believes, is that Australia and most Western societies have been reshaped over the last 40 years by a series of social trends that elevates the individual over the group.
The drivers, Mackay says, are shrinking households – within the next 10 years, every third household in Australia will contain just one person; the high rate of relationship breakdown with around 35 per cent of contemporary marriages ending in divorce; increased mobility; increased busyness; and what Mackay calls an “enthusiastic embrace of information technology”, which promises to connect us but actually makes it easier than ever to remain apart.
“You put all those things together and the cumulative effect is to make us rampantly individualistic,” says Mackay. In doing so, he adds, we’ve become less concerned about our common humanity and instead become “obsessed with identity” and how we’re different from others.
The consequences of this atomisation of society, he says, is that it creates a dynamic in which argument is framed as a battle to decide winners and losers. “We tend to come to arguments at the moment, whether it’s in politics or some other aspect of our society, from the point of view that we are individuals in competition with each other,” Mackay says. “And that’s antithetical to good outcomes.”
Not only does this raise the stakes, drawing emotion into what should be rational discussions, it also invites moral judgment that creates a binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, adds Vogelman. “When people disagree on an idea, they sometimes judge that person morally as well,” he says. “Moral superiority is good for self-esteem but not necessarily for society. Once there’s so much judgment in a conversation, people become scared to talk and hold back. It’s even worse when we see scientists holding back because they’re afraid of being ostracised. This means our society may lose out on ideas that take us forward.”
When opinions and views are freighted with moral judgment and ideological positions fossilise, they tend to become wedded to your sense of identity. The problem with that? From such a position, you can’t possibly be wrong.
In 1956 researcher Leon Festinger published the first major study of cognitive dissonance. It involved a small UFO religion in Chicago called the Seekers, who believed an apocalypse was imminent. Festinger and his fellow researchers wanted to see how members coped after the event didn’t occur, focusing on the cognitive dissonance between the members’ beliefs and actual events and the psychological consequences of unmet expectations.
“They thought the world was going to end at midnight,” says Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, who’s speaking to me as he walks through Manhattan’s East Village on the way to pick up his kids. “And then the clock strikes midnight and there’s no alien ship to pick them up and they’re just sitting there in the dark. The question is, are they going to abandon that identity and say, ‘This cult was wrong. I never should have joined’? Or do they identify with this cult so much that they’re going to double down and find some way to rationalise it?”
As you can probably guess, participants who were fringe members of the cult were more inclined to recognise that they had been misled. But committed members were more likely to reinterpret evidence to show that they were right all along. “They wanted to identify with the group so much and they were supported by the other cult members to hold onto their beliefs,” says Van Bavel, who’s author of The Power of Us.
This type of behaviour, Van Bavel says, is common among committed groups, be they climate-change denialists, anti-vaxxers or QAnon, the hardening of beliefs often aided and abetted by the secure echo chambers of social media.
Similar levels of cognitive dissonance exist between cult followers and people who are ‘hyper-partisan’, says Van Bavel, who’s done extensive research on the phenomenon of ‘partisan brain’. “There’s some party members who are deeply committed to the party,” he says. “They have stickers on their car, signs on their front lawn, they would go to all the rallies. If it turns out their favourite political leader is corrupt, they’re the people who are going to fight it.”
These people’s attitudes are further entrenched by confirmation bias – the deliberate seeking out of evidence that reaffirms your beliefs. This is often accompanied by the dismissal of contrary information, data, or, indeed, facts.
“They’re really motivated to find evidence that their political party is doing the right thing or is accurate and the other party is not,” says Van Bavel. “It can also lead them to believe misinformation or fake news that aligns with their party identity.”
Confirmation bias has been the subject of thousands of studies. One of the most famous was at Stanford University involving a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of capital punishment, the other against it. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favour of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
Doubling down on your beliefs, even in the face of facts, is an evolved survival mechanism, says Van Bavel. “If you think about human nature, we didn’t really evolve to analyse data or read scientific articles,” he says. “We evolved to navigate in groups on the savannahs of Africa and get along with people so that they would share food and resources and help fend off predators or other tribes. The idea of being kicked out of the group is incredibly threatening to people.”
No one is exempt from this type of corrupted thinking. As Vogelman says, biases are inherent and impossible to escape. “We are not as rational as we think we are,” he says. “There are so many things that bias our thinking and the most important thing about bias is to know that you are already biased. No matter what you say, you will be biased from the beginning. Then the question is, can you identify the bias? And how do you limit it?”
Bias is not limited to politics or social issues, of course. In recent years the debate as to who is the greatest basketballer of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James, has become extremely heated online, with a single post praising the merits of one player leading to cascades of cherry-picked counter evidence and reams of abuse. Personally, I’m a Jordan guy. I’m also biased. His career took off when I was young and impressionable. For many younger LeBron fans, the same is true. Jordan to them is just an old guy their dad bangs on about. For either party to admit the other might be right would be wounding to them, as it would invalidate one of the joys of their childhoods.
“Personally, I’m a Jordan guy. I’m also biased. His career took off when I was young and impressionable”
In fact, being hyper-partisan is not dissimilar to being a hardcore fan of, say, the Rabbitohs or Penrith, it’s just that in sport, your loyalty and one-eyed perspective is applauded. How many times have you blamed the umpire on a call that was 50/50?
“The ref calls a penalty, the hardcore fans scream at the ref and they just think the ref got it wrong,” says Van Bavel. “They can’t admit that their team isn’t as good.” The degree to which you’ll do this once again comes down to how much the team is tied up with your identity – hint, if you paint your face, then it’s pretty intertwined.
“The more casual fans are like, ‘Ah, the ref’s right. We deserve to lose’,” says Van Bavel.
When was the last time you heard a diehard fan say that? That’s right, never.
HEAR ME OUT
A few months ago, I met up with a good friend for a drink. We discussed basketball as we often do. We tend to agree with each other on most things – that’s why we’re friends – but on this night we reached a stumbling block over whether the Golden State Warriors would have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA finals if the Cavaliers had not sustained injuries to star players Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
I believed the Warriors would not have won. My friend disagreed. While normally we will retreat from an argument if we feel that it might get into dangerous territory, this time I decided to stick to my guns. So did my friend.
Eventually, when it was obvious neither of us was going to back down, we moved on, yet I felt like the emotional tenor of the evening had been stained by our disagreement. Once again, I had been immovable.
The argument highlighted the importance of context in a disagreement. Friendships, unlike romantic or family relationships, are often regarded purely as “support relationships”, says Dr Harry Blatterer, a senior lecturer in sociology at Macquarie University. As such they are inherently fragile. “There’s a cultural expectation that this is what makes a friendship,” says Blatterer. “You support your mates.”
For that reason, when arguing with a friend, most of us stick to socially benign topics like sports and pop culture and refrain from fully expressing our opinion. Yet, if you know how to argue properly, it is possible to achieve a level of robustness without jeopardising the relationship.
Like many arguments that take place in bars, the one with my friend was characterised by a series of ill-conceived tactics common to ineffective disagreement. Neither of us was prepared to back down. And neither of us really listened to the other’s evidence. Both of us selected evidence – in my case Kyrie Irving’s clutch-ness – that was questionable. Finally, neither of us could keep emotion out it, hence the bad feeling afterwards.
How could we have done better? There are a number of ways. But first, you need to define what an argument actually is.
“It’s hard to go past Monty Python’s definition that it’s a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition,” says Dr Peter Ellerton, a senior lecturer in philosophy and director of The University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. “It’s grounded in the giving and taking of reasons to infer and justify a conclusion. It’s a robust inference that’s well justified.”
The problem these days, says Ellerton, is that “there’s a tremendous amount of stuff that we infer without really checking the quality of our inference through a lot of rigorous analysis and evaluation”.
Crucially, you need to make your argument accessible and meaningful to other people. If you don’t, Ellerton says, then your reasons just become another form of assertion, which is where argument is distinguished from debate. “The purpose of debating is to win,” says Ellerton. “Debating is antagonistic whereas argumentation is collaborative. Ultimately the purpose of argumentation is social cognition, the ability to argue with each other, not against each other.”
This makes it particularly unsuited to forums in which nuance and rigour are precluded, such as debate shows and social media. “The whole thing [social media] is a minefield because you take one step in any direction and there’s some kind of inflammatory statement towards you that you then jump on,” says Ellerton.
How about in the real world, then? Should you come face to face, say at a BBQ, with someone from outside your bubble, who holds opposing views to your own, is it possible to change their opinion? The answer is yes, says Van Bavel, but rather than browbeating your ‘opponent’, you’re best to make them feel like they’ve arrived at a new conclusion on their own.
“You ask questions that get people thinking, drawing their own conclusions about something and then they feel like they came up with it themselves,” he says. “And then they’re less defensive and less reactive against certain types of information.”
But as much as you need to encourage the person you’re arguing with to examine their position, to truly engage with someone, you need to look squarely at yourself and perhaps adopt the principle of charity.
“One of the unique things about the principle of charity as a method is that you have to articulate what your opponent’s arguments are, and ideally, you should be able to articulate it even better than them,” says Vogelman. “So, if I was arguing against a Trump supporter – and I hate Trump – I should be able to articulate all the good things about Trump before I reject them. But our tendency is to find the weakest arguments of the other person and then smash the argument down. The principle of charity says, ‘Can you find the strongest arguments of your opponent?’”
The principle is in some ways similar to contrarianism – arguing opposing views, often for the sake of it, even if they run counter to those you actually believe. Done in the right spirit, though, this too can help you understand the nuance of a particular position.
“Contrarianism for the sake of it can be irritating,” Vogelman says. “But if it’s done in a generous, curious, truth-seeking way, rather than ‘let me put you down and be smart’, it can be productive. Good science involves contrarianism because it demands that you’re always looking at alternative hypotheses and new data. If you don’t close your mind off you never know what you can find.”
The final and perhaps most potent tool in making an argument productive is the one most of us struggle mightily to employ: to listen. Really listen. “The most courageous thing we humans can ever do is to listen to each other attentively and empathically,” says Mackay. “Attentive and empathic listening means that I’ll try and figure out what you really think before I react to it. And I will say as you’re telling me, ‘You reckon this? Have I got this straight?’ In other words, I’ll prove that I’ve really understood your point of view. So, the breakthrough in civilised argument is qualifying ourselves to disagree by proving that we actually understand each other’s point of view.”
You might want to let that sink in a little. The idea that disagreement should only really begin once vigorous probing of ideas and thorough understanding of counterarguments has been achieved, essentially means applying the rigour of scientific scrutiny and philosophical inquiry to social discourse. At BBQs, no less! But here’s the thing. Extreme conditions call for radical ideas. And in such divisive times, this one is difficult to argue with.
How To Disagree Effectively
Use these tactics to argue with rather than against someone.
1. Know your intention
“If your intention is to win, then that’s the first thing that will stop good disagreement,” says Vogelman. “A better tactic is to say, ‘I may disagree, but my intention is to listen and understand before I do that’.”
2. Understand you may be wrong
“The best way to be open and less dogmatic is to think about all the mistakes in your life previously where you thought you were right and you were wrong,” advises Vogelman. “Breaking down your sense of intellectual omnipotence is
3. Quit lecturing
“You can’t persuade people by lecturing them,” says Vogelman. “One of the iron laws of great influence is to be a good listener. Making people feel that you are smarter than them is often a sure way not to persuade them.”
4. Be curious
“Have a level of curiosity about the disagreement,” advises Vogelman. “To ask questions, to think about it.”
5. Be flexible
“If you’re going to be in a fixed position of any sort, you will probably create more conflict,” says Vogelman. “The harder you defend yourself, the more likely the person opposing you will become extreme.”
By Ben Jhoty
Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Deputy Editor, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.
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