Friend Your Enemies

27 Dec

 Unfriending culture and the dumbing down of debate

Information technology is argued to have brought the world closer together and exposed all those who partake in its gifts to a broader range of information and opinions. This, in turn, should have increased diversity and tolerance. What I see, however, is the opposite: fragmentation and self-righteousness.

The clearest examples of it are to be found on my facebook feed and in the behaviour of my (facebook) friends. While it might be easy to think of what happens on facebook as a rather shallow and fluffy (cats) manifestation of cultural trends, it is a manifestation of cultural trends nonetheless, and what it reveals about what’s happening in culture more deeply is profoundly disturbing.

I have deliberately chosen to remain facebook friends with a number of people whose political and social views differ greatly from my own. Some of these are old high school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, some are former teachers, others are people whom I have known socially. These people often post opinions or statements with which I disagree. Occasionally I like to challenge these opinions or statements, in the hope of engaging in some kind of debate, and of having the chance to refine or even change one another’s views. This is rarely (but sometimes) the outcome. On a couple of occasions, I have been unfriended or even blocked. Thankfully this is rare. On many more occasions, I have had other friends suggest that I unfriend a person for their opinions, because I “don’t need friends like that.” On the contrary, I believe I do. I believe we all do.

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Most often, I simply don’t respond or initiate a debate any more. This is because, increasingly, what I see is an opinion expressed with such contempt for the opposing view that the only options are agreement or silence. Let me give you a selection of dichotomies offered by my friends, from my feed:

Obama is pure evil / Obama is the best president ever

Climate change skeptics are morons / These idiots that believe in anthropogenic climate change

The fuckwits who voted for Abbott / ALP fuckwits

Anti-vaccine idiots / The evil medical-pharmaceutical conspiracy

Godless greenies / Brain-dead god-botherers

Feminazis / Misogynists

Patriarchy / Politically-correct mafia

Bleeding hearts / Heartless

The reason for this vehemence and vitriol, I believe, is the way in which the online platform allows people to express their views with complete disregard for the human being on the other end of the opposing opinion. I know I have been guilty of this myself, and am trying very hard to always remember the reason why I liked the person in the first place, however much I may disagree with their opinion.

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When we label each other and declare particular points of view to be good or evil, we stifle any intelligent debate on the matter, and retreat into circles of friends who agree with us and make us feel good about our view of the world without any need to defend or articulate it in clear rational terms. We also then begin to assume that anyone with any intelligence/soul is just like us, and we lose the capacity to argue coherently for our point of view.

I’ve heard friends say they don’t know anyone who voted for [insert name of party], while other friends say they don’t know anyone who voted for [insert name of opposing party]. I see it as my job as a citizen to seek out people who voted the opposite way, and to attempt to understand why, not to decry people who I haven’t met as obviously ill-informed or just plain stupid.

To take one example, because of who I am and the social circles in which I generally move, most of the people I know are convinced that the current Australian Federal government is making a complete mess of things. They can point to a number of disasters in the areas of education, information technology, marriage reform, international diplomacy, and environmental management. They’ve got the facts and figures to back it up. They are intelligent and well-informed. They are convinced that this is a one-term government, headed for defeat at the next election if only the opposition can organise themselves into a credible alternative and campaign well. They can also provide facts and figures that show that Australia weathered the global financial crisis far better than other comparable nations, and that the previous government managed the economy well. But I also have friends, equally intelligent and well-informed, who are involved in different walks of life, who believe that the Abbott government is destined for at least two, probably three terms in government, and can cite evidence to show that the international community is relieved and heartened by the current government, that the previous government badly mismanaged Australia’s financial affairs, and that Australia should have been in a far better position both economically and socially than it is. The key point here is not who is right, but that both groups are equally comprised of intelligent and well-informed individuals. The name-calling and declarations of abomination, idiocy, and lack of humanity on the other side just don’t ring true, and certainly don’t do anything to further public debate.

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Everyone seems able to cite ‘incontrovertible’ studies to support their points of view. Some friends of mine post links to articles which show alarming global warming trends, while others post links to articles that show that there is no warming. The polar ice is receding. The polar ice is advancing. There is a clear link between gun laws and gun violence (one way or the other). There is no link between gun laws and violence. All peer reviewed, footnoted, well argued et cetera. If peer-reviewed literature overwhelmingly shows the opposite of what someone believes (for example if it shows that vaccination does not cause autism), they will pull out arguments that demonstrate the bias inherent in the peer-review system for academic literature. Or they will dismiss academic research altogether and rely on slippery (and individually-determined) notions of ‘common sense’, all argued with the same “agree or die” vitriol.

The problem with evidence here is in the selectivity of information channels. Far from exposing us to a broader range of information and opinions, the information age has bred a generation of people who glean all their information and opinions from a narrow band. There are some people who only post opinions from the Australian, while others only quote The Guardian. Both groups are equally convinced that they have a handle on ‘the facts’. In bygone days, we may have had access to a smaller range of information, but at least that small range of information was the same for all interested parties. I’m not arguing that was a better state of affairs, but we seem to have missed the point that as the range of information available overall has increased, each of us is still only able to absorb a small part of that range. We each act as if the information we have available to us, filtered through editorial interests, represents all the information on a given topic.

As a result we tribalise. We unfriend people with whom we disagree because we clearly have all the facts and they must be either stupid or evil to hold a different viewpoint. This kills debate, and each ideological clan (having all the facts and being right) sits in its intellectual fiefdom, usually with its nominal warlord (Pilger, Chomsky, Bolt, Limbaugh), picking off enemy stragglers but with no real demonstrated interest in engaging with other groups.

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So far, so virtual. But the internet manifestation of this is simply a symptom of the ideological tribalisation of our society at a deeper level. The standard of political and public debate today is embarrassing to a species which has for centuries prided itself on its mental acuity and loquacity. Compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s Dream speech (I don’t care whether you agree with the content, look at the structure and the rhetoric) to the television appearances of our national leaders today. The discussion of ideas and viewpoints has given way to name-calling. Political spin-doctors must have a very dim view of the average voter’s intelligence (or perhaps attention span), as the order of the day seems to be the repetition of catch-phrases with little content (Moving Forward, Stop the Boats, With Us or Against Us), and simplistic accusations of incompetence levelled at one’s opponents. We are no longer able to articulate or defend our beliefs, because there is no need to – we are clearly right, so anyone who disagrees is obviously wrong, and there’s an end to it.

Tribalisation is also evident within broader social groups. Parenting (the currently trendy term for having/raising children) is rife with it. The Attachment Parents only ever talk to other Attachment Parents, the Aware Parents sit in their little corner, and the Spock mainstream shakes their heads at both. Each is convinced of what they are doing, but doesn’t bother engaging in debate with the others. The pro- and anti- vaccine lobbies each hold to their own research, and rather than actually attempting to convince the other group, or understand one another’s concerns, they fire salvos full of hatred and accusations of either evil or stupidity. Oh, they will claim  that they are making a case, an argument, but if you read what they are saying it is clear that the only possible impact of their missives is to make those who already agree with them feel superior. Nobody was ever convinced to change their mind by being talked down to and called stupid, ignorant, malicious, or worse. Rather than try to change people’s opinions respectfully, we use self-affirming vitriol to bolster our belief in our own superiority. This is pure propaganda which, while perhaps not designed to do so, can only have the affect of further polarising viewpoints and tribalising society. The maxim of “First, seek to understand” does not enter anyone’s mind.

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(photo originally published 23 April 2010 in The Courier Mail)

Where does this come from? Perversely enough, I believe it comes from the well-intentioned (perhaps) core belief of the post-modern mind: that all points of view are equally valid. That little idea, which many think is at the heart of diversity, actually achieves the opposite. Instead of embracing difference, it has sent the message that it is at best tasteless, at worst morally transgressive, to engage in debate with people who see the world differently. It has tied some of us lefties in knots – we don’t know what to do, for example, with the issue of headgear that has some women covering their faces… is this a feminist issue or is it about cultural/religious freedom? Do we in the West have a right to express an opinion on the matter? What about circumcision (female or male)? The result seems to be that ‘they’ can run their own countries however ‘they’ want (or can they?) but once it starts getting in ‘our’ faces, we have to say… something. So as long as ‘they’ do it ‘over there’, and we can remain ignorant about it, we aren’t bothered. This seems rather infantile, and results in us each playing in our own sandpit. We’re not thinking globally and acting locally at all… we’re seeking to restrict our thinking very locally, so that the global ramifications of our actions remain outside our consciousness.

There is another way of looking at diversity, which is not to say that all points of view are equally valid, but rather that a diversity of viewpoints contributes to the richness of humanity, and ought to be celebrated. That means we seek to become informed about other points of view, but we engage in debates of ideas. It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to try to convince you that the way I see things has merit, nor vice versa, rather it means I relish the debate, the opportunity to talk and argue. Even if our minds don’t change, we exercise our minds, our language, our rhetorical skill. We may even come to hold our original beliefs more firmly, but we will know why we hold those beliefs and we will be able to articulate and defend them without resort to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or name calling.

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As a child, my parents had many friends with whom they had strong political and social disagreements. I spent hours listening to them argue with their friends passionately and articulately (mostly in Italian). At their knees I learned to use words to express my ideas. I grew to have ideas that differed from theirs, and we had long, often heated debates. Sometimes our opinions changed, sometimes they didn’t. It never came to blows. What I mostly hear now is people who agree with each other arguing heatedly against an absent foe, who isn’t there to put their own case: a ‘straw-man’ opponent. Under these circumstances, the opposing view will inevitably seem ill-informed and we will end up believing people who hold that view to be either stupid or evil.

Don’t unfriend your enemies.

(photos by Benjamin Prindable except where indicated; artwork by author)

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12 Responses to “Friend Your Enemies”

  1. Nicole December 27, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    Oh man you got it in one. Friendships (and relationships) are being destroyed by the lack of healthy arguing in our society. It is OK to disagree and it is OK to discuss why we disagree yet disagreeing with something someone says is increasingly being interpreted as disagreeing with the person as a whole. Which of course is (mostly) not the case. I find it odd that people are prepared to air their opinions on Facebook, in writing, where the world can see it but are often reluctant to get into a debate or discussion in a social group because it is not ‘nice’. We are being dumbed down by niceness.
    I cannot talk to my parents about much more than the weather and whether a top matches a skirt because any attempt at debate (which oddly my father taught me about 15 years ago) is seen as being overly aggressive and negative to the family. I am so tired of agreeing with people all the time for the sake of peace when a little healthy debate does so much more to expand the mind.
    Bravo.

  2. Aileen December 27, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    I would like to see a few less degrading remarks made personly about people on face book. I though calling people names was what children did not adults. If one can’t at least say things politly they should not be spoken or written. I find it nicer to ignore at all times and stay friends.

    • robpensalfini December 28, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

      I agree. What I would like to see is debate without the broad labelling and name calling. That’s what I learned at my parents’ knees – how to disagree wholeheartedly with someone and put my case without getting mean. It seems that if I havd to gag my opinions and shy away from disagreement to maintain a friendship, perhaps there wasn’t much depth to the friendship in the first place. No need to be nasty, we can play nice, but we should play! I reckon.

  3. Karen December 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments you’ve expressed, and also lament the difficulty in finding out the facts on important issues. I’m currently a regular reader of four newsfeeds and thinking of adding a fifth, in the hope that I will be able to triangulate from the multiple points of view to a ‘single point of truth’, sort of. Even a ‘generally coherent blob of truth’ would do me.

    However, while I applaud the principle, I think there are practical problems with open debate on Facebook. I have been part of a lively FB debate which was not only respectful, but also informative: disputants linked to their sources, and I learned a lot from it. I’ve also been part of a FB debate which was superficially civil, but which was actually smugly vicious and personally hurtful – so much so that I deleted all my comments and regretted ever opening my big mouth on that topic. The trouble is, I don’t know what caused the difference. There were plenty of similarities: in both debates, emotions were running high, some of the disputants were experts in their fields and presented interesting points from their expertise, and many of the disputants expressed a concern to maintain civil debate. My best guess is FB encourages summarised points and quick reading, which means important qualifying clauses or descriptions of motives and intentions are left out, and also people are more likely to shoot from the hip, perhaps. Unintentional trolling ensues.

    I’m inclined now to stay out of FB debates. Not because I disagree with the importance of open debate, but because I don’t want the unpleasantness. I would contribute if I felt invited into a open debate – and I note that you (and Mr Mackie) have started announcing ‘Rules of Debate’ when opening up threads – perhaps that is the way to make it work?

    • robpensalfini December 28, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

      I think we’re not well trained in rhetoric, generally speaking, and fail to distinguish between attacking the person and critiquing an idea. Eg I’ve seen some of the same people who expressed outrage at the way Julia Gillard was personally attacked (her accent, her hair, her body shape etc) quite happily get stuck into Tony Abbott’s ears or Bronwyn Bishop’s hair or age.
      Many of my mates seem to laud Keating and pine for his ‘wit’ but as I recall he was merely the master of the vicious ad hominem barb, nasty but very low on actual content.

  4. Niela Miller December 27, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    Readers of this string might be interested in seeing Arnold Mindell’s Worldwork YouTubes, particularly Sitting in the Fire which shows ways of welcoming all points of view in a field.

  5. Tobias M-G December 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    but it would also be fair to say this… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqH_0LPVoho

    • robpensalfini December 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks Tobias, always good to hear a bit of the Specials 🙂
      Not sure I agree with the entirety of the lyrical content though. I mean presumably there are reasons why the hypothetical interlocutor is friends with said ‘racist friend’ and what the friend’s real opportunity is here is one for engaging in debate.
      At the risk of repeating myself, the danger in simply cutting the person off is that it will only serve to further entrench each party’s beliefs. Try to empathise with the ‘racist friend’ for a moment (not with their racist views, with the person). To him/her the sudden cessation if the relationship might just present more evidence that the politically correct lobby has gotten out of control, or that “s/he knows I’m right and can’t argue with me so that’s why s/he won’t talk to me”. It provides evidence for the belief that the ‘other side’ is irrational.
      Keeping a few ‘racist friends’ provides us with practice at arguing against these beliefs and makes us better prepared to tackle the issues on a larger level. For me, perhaps more importantly, it also helps me stay attuned to racism (etc) in my own words and deeds. Of course, you might think you are never racist, sexist, prejudiced… In which case you may BE the racist friend 😉

      • robpensalfini December 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

        PS by “you” I didn’t mean you, Tobias – I meant the generic ‘you’, as in ‘one’ 🙂

  6. mpestorius December 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Terrific thinking. And great advice. My life has been greatly enriched by knowing people who think differently. I’m not as scared of them as I used to be. Thanks

  7. Tony Bishop December 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Facebook has dragged politics back into my life and I am not liking any of it. I have more “friends ” on this computer than I ever had in real life. I love to unfriend . I used to do that for survival when there were no computers. The political discourse seems better face to face .Too many things can be said in haste and then it is out there to do you harm .Thank goodness for the ability to unfriend at will I say ..I go along with everything else you said though. Keep up the good thoughts …Inspiring and fresh.

    • robpensalfini December 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

      You make an excellent point. The internet makes misunderstanding easier than ever 😉
      And it also seems to give people permission to be asses to each other, which is not what I meant by debate 😉
      And you raise the issue of the distinction between a Facebook friend and a real life friend. Social media is newish and largely unnavigated wrt this. I have lived in half a dozen or more cities on three continents and mostly use FB for keeping in touch with people I’ve known. But I realise this is just one of it’s many many uses.
      In the old days, political social debates happened in the town hall. The town hall just got a hell of a lot bigger, and we haven’t figured out how to make that work, or whether it can.

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