I am lucky to be married to a man with whom I have a lot in common, and who shares many of my interests and values. We get along well and sometimes we mistakenly think we know everything there is to know about each other after being married for as long as we have. I say mistakenly because every once in a while one of us will surprise the other with an unexpected opinion that is just hard relate to. When that happens, we argue and debate, neither really willing to budge, until one of us finally laughs and says “How is it possible that you aren’t of the same opinion as me?” It diffuses the situation and we finally end up agreeing to disagree.
One thing that strikes me though when we have these disagreements is how difficult it can be to accept that someone you know so well can think so differently about something. This is actually not that unusual. In fact, there is something known as ‘assumed similarity bias’, which is an unconscious assumption that other people invariably think the same way we do and share the same values and beliefs. We don’t stop to consider that their worldview might be drastically different and when we see evidence of this it is just hard to grasp.
The truth is that we are all different, even those of us who have a lot in common. And we cannot even begin to understand what goes through another person’s mind unless we stop and really listen.
One thing I wonder, however, is whether we are getting worse at dialogue and debate in society. This is an important question because the ability to discuss and debate and reach an agreement, if not a common understanding, is one of the pillars of democracy.
We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, all the more so on social media. Algorithms make sure that we see what we want to see, although, to be honest, even without these algorithms we wouldn’t see all there is to see anyway as we tend to portray only our best selves, or the selves we wish to be.
On the other hand, the discussion and debates that do happen are often rude or just filled with misunderstandings. Rude because when on social media people tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face (you can read more about that here) or misunderstandings because a hastily written comment might not be entirely thought through. Or even if it is, in can be misinterpreted in a myriad of ways by the reader. Have you ever heard about not discussing important issues over email or text message because it is a recipe for misunderstanding? Well, I’m wondering if the same goes for social media debates. Something has just got to be said about face-to-face conversations.
My worry is that if debate is often either nonexistent because of the glossy façades we create in our posts, or unreasonably harsh because of bad social media manners, how does this affect our common understanding as a democratic society? We need to try to understand what other people really think and feel in order to be able to create a world where there is room for everybody (and which won’t self-destruct, which seems to be a real risk at the moment). But if it’s hard to relate to one’s friends’ and family members’ different opinions and views, how hard is it not to relate to people who have completely different values than our own?
I don’t really know what the solution is. All I know is that this needs to be said again and again. Dialogue and debate need to be constructive and we need to be better at listening. We need to stand behind what we say, in every situation, whether online or in person. If we can’t, we simply shouldn’t say it. And we need to be kind.
If we’re open to constructive and friendly debate and discussion, a common understanding can be reached, even if, like with my husband and me, it’s an agreement to disagree. At least it creates an understanding of where the other person stands and why.