How We Get to Civility


Writing for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf asks, “Why Can’t People Hear What Jordan Peterson Is Saying?”  Peterson, if you haven’t encountered him before, is a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who has become infamous because he’s willing to state things, publicly, that don’t precisely follow the politically correct line.

Friedersdorf’s topic is a gone-viral interview in which Cathy Newman, a British journalist, repeatedly mischaracterizes what Peterson has just said to her.  Friedersdorf’s conclusion:

Lots of culture-war fights are unavoidable––that is, they are rooted in earnest, strongly felt disagreements over the best values or way forward or method of prioritizing goods. The best we can do is have those fights, with rules against eye-gouging.

But there is a way to reduce needless division over the countless disagreements that are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy: get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than egging them on to offer more extreme statements in interviews; or even worse, distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.

For his part, Instapundit Glenn Reynolds answers the question of Friedersdorf’s title by stating that people have “been indoctrinated not to hear it.”  I think that is correct, and I think it is one of the more terrible consequences of our cultural shift as recent generations have entered the adult world having been more-fully indoctrinated than prior generations in the West.

When I first started with online discourse — going on 20 years ago, now — I loved how the Internet made it possible for two people who disagree to work their disagreement down to an irreducible principle.  At this particular point, I say this, and you say that, and every difference thereafter follows from that divergence.  Having gotten to that point, the two disputants don’t necessarily capitulate, but at least there’s space to acknowledge that the origin of the argument is, in fact, something arguable, and the other person isn’t evil.

Of course, that was back in the era of blogging, which had very different incentives than the era of social media.  In some cases, those conversations happened in comment sections, in which the audience for one’s argument is implicitly either the other disputant or your readers or the disputant’s readers.  To a large degree, that dynamic reduced the possibility that the other person could be treated as a foil for your group’s fun.

Social media actually encourages the contrary and unhealthy treatment.  In social media, our audience tends to be people who are more likely to agree with us, and those who disagree with us aren’t necessarily engaging so much as overheard, so our treatment of them is structured much more entirely for the benefit of our in-group.

I should stress that I don’t think this is entirely the fault of a change in medium.  It seems to me that the inflection point of the curve came when the issue of same-sex marriage went mainstream.  That was a major cultural moment, and it hinged entirely on the ability of the advocates to pretend that the other side simply had no arguments that weren’t easily dismissed bigotry.  To allow that discussion to get to the point at which the proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage could say, “This is the assumption about which we disagree, and it is clearly possible to disagree on that point intelligently and with good intentions,” is to acknowledge that the government should not redefine a central social institution… certainly not with heavily reliance on the judiciary.

I argued, at the time, that the same-sex marriage issue was a test case for progressives — a proof of concept on how to radically transform our society by discarding the social norms that allow us to remain a pluralistic society — and the transgender push has been one of several subsequent controversies to prove the point.  As we argue fruitlessly about whether the fault lies with Obama supporters or Trump supporters, perhaps same-sex marriage advocates are getting away without the blame they deserve.

What we need is a return to the principle that we should engage with those who disagree, beginning from the assumption that the origin of our differences is a point on which either they or we are incorrect, without its being obvious which it is.  Unfortunately, to return to that principle would be to acknowledge that the ideological children of Saul Alinsky have been dishonest and downright immoral in the way they have manipulated our society.

  • Mike678

    The key point, IMHO, is the ‘argument’. Many people just spew a conclusion with no rationale, no facts–an opinion if you will. This is, as you say, not a discussion–it’s more emotional venting that we did as children. We all do it at times; no one is perfect. Some, however, appear to find a logical, well reasoned argument elusive….