Developing a Better Way to Disagree Online

Here’s something I’ve been kicking around lately. Part of my continuing development as a human who wants to be the most loving person possible, I’ve been seriously investigating claims, philosophies, movements, politics, etc. that I’m naturally inclined to ignore or reject. The latest of these issues is the Black Lives Matter campaign, a popular movement swirling around a range of issues, but primarily instigated by the perception that police disproportionately kill more black people than other races. The status quo backlash response has been a movement rallying around police with the slogan All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of the issue because there’s a billion resources for anyone who wants to look into it.

The point of bringing my investigation of the issue up, is to tell you about my experiences with social media. I’ll start by saying that I really love using Facebook. I love the unexpected things I see and hear through it from the incredibly diverse group of ‘friends’ I have. My Facebook policy is to accept almost anyone as a ‘friend’, and not to curate my feed in such a way that any opinion is stifled. I see so many friends who have created a very small echo chamber for themselves, proudly unfriending anyone who falls on the other side of some arbitrary political line. I WANT friends who challenge my ideas and make me uncomfortable. So, I’ve been regularly posting articles and videos that pro-Black Lives Matter. Not because I agree 100% with all of the points they are making or the style with which they make them, but because I think the general message deserves to be heard openly and honestly. I DO believe in the concept of privilege and power dynamics, and I’ve found my fellow privileged people have a really hard time accepting those ideas, and so they have an instant-shutdown switch for even considering most of the BLM concepts. As a result of posting about dozen or so items related to BLM over the course of a couple weeks I’ve found quite a few people popping up and dismissing them out of hand, ridiculing, or arguing with the premises. All of which is totally fine with me. It gives me a chance to attempt to articulate WHY I’m convinced of certain premises; an exercise that is healthy for both them and me.

What always emerges is a dynamic that I think I can improve. What happens is the typical conservative will come on and say: “I disagree, this is wrong.” Followed by me attempting to explain why I think they misunderstand the premise, or that their premises should be questioned, and/or one of my rabid liberal friends tearing into them, calling them racist, implying they are evil for not agreeing with my posted piece, etc.

So here’s a post I put on Facebook where a dissenting conservative agreed to try something with me…


I've been searching for a way to facilitate more healthy communication between people who disagree (on any topic) in the format of social networks. I've invited [a random guy on facebook] to participate in the early development of a method I've been brainstorming. Being in the early stages of development, it will surely be clunky, awkward, WAAAAY too long, and probably won't work the first time. What I'm hoping to discover is a point where our values and/or interpretation of the world diverge.

One thing I'm convinced of -because of my upbringing in a conservative Christian republican leaning community- is that most conservatives want what is best for everyone, just like all my liberal friends. There is SOME point (or points) somewhere down the philosophical chain to our base values where the conservative and liberal mindset diverge, and I'd like to see if I can find that in order for both sides to be able to communicate and learn from each other. I think we have more in common than we disagree on, and if we can understand WHY we REALLY disagree, I think that could help a lot of people be better people. I believe that assuming you disagree because the other person is evil, stupid, selfish, lazy etc. is not only uncharitable, but actually hurts your intellectual life, causing you to fall into an echo-chamber of your own making.

So what I'm hoping to develop here is a structure for discovery that can be applied to people you disagree with on political/cultural issues. I want to be clear that the topic we are discussing should not be the important part of this exercise. (It's just how I happened to come across my volunteer interlocutor.) I also want to make sure that this is dialectical, not didactic rhetoric. In other words, I'm not attempting to operate like the sophists, where I step someone through a carefully choreographed set of questions designed to set them up so that they can only come to a pre-arranged conclusion. Instead, I want this to be like Socrates idealized, (though my perception is that his methods were really not all that different than the sophists, but that's a debate for a different time.) This is an iterative, exploratory, potentially recursive process.

Oh my gawd this is way longer than I hoped it would be. But that's the price you pay for reading anything I do. OK. So I've covered my motivation for this exercise and the style I hope to achieve. And finally I want to make my a priori philosophical assumptions clear. My basic mental model of a human mind is that there are a couple layers of stuff going on there. At the very bottom are values. Values drive our beliefs. Articulating our beliefs recursively leads to thoughts, actions and words that then feed back into our beliefs. (and occasionally percolate back down to influence our values.) Nothing in this system is static, but the lower you go, the more stable they are. It takes a HUGE event or series of events to significantly alter a person's values. It's still hard, but not AS hard to change a person's beliefs, and it's easiest to manipulate people's actions and words. (But if those actions and words contradict the deeper beliefs and values the change won't stick without constant and terrible repression.)

Since most political debate takes place only on the upper levels of the human mind, the focus can only lead to repressive action, creating out-groups, false assumptions, and everything else you associate with "talking politics". I'm not pretending that I can fix this problem, but if I can find even a small way to make people more loving and tolerant of those they disagree with, then I think this will have been worth it.

FINALLY, this is an odd experiment, and it's going to be challenging enough without the usual multitude of voices chiming in. I have LOTS of hot threads with people insulting and yelling at each other if you need that, please go there, and let this conversation between [Random facebook guy] and myself proceed uninterrupted. I'm making the conversation public because I hope to solicit feedback on the structure and such afterwards with a sort of post mortem so I can continue to develop this method if it shows any promise.

SO! Now. I hope to start with sort of baseline. I'm assuming the answer to this first question is "yes". But it might not be. And the reason for disagreement could be because I've worded the question wrong, or used a trigger word I didn't realize, or I'm just dumb. Anyway, the idea is that at every step along the way we touch base and find true connection before continuing towards the point where our philosophical agreement begins to break down. At that point, I hope to explore that territory and create a hypothesis or two. And feel it out from there. Not EXACTLY like this model, but something like it:

So here is the sadly aborted first attempt:

Josh Foreman: First of all, [Random Facebook Guy] thank you for taking the time to do this exercise with me. For the record, our first encounter was on a thread I created with a link to a video that had the basic message that "not seeing [skin] color" is not only "not racist" but actually perpetuates systemic racism. You disagreed with the premise. I'm more inclined to agree with it. But I hope to keep discussion about the specifics of the video out of this until we discover what different philosophical or interpretive schemes have that cause us to differ on the matter.
So here is the first baseline question: 1. Do you believe that all humans ought to be treated equally? (baring those who engage in illegal activity that requires removing them from normal society.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Everyone should be received equally as strangers, and everyone should be given a chance on an individual level. But our choices and behavior dictate how we are treated individually, so you can't have equal outcome for everyone. But superficial factors like identifiers shouldn't influence that.
On a more professional level, everyone should be treated on the merits of their capability regardless of any factors that may be superficial to the job like age, race, aesthetic, gender, sexuality, political leanings or religion.

Josh Foreman: Great. On the same page.

2. Do you feel that part of your duty as a human is to work for justice for everybody? (Remember, I'm not trying to trap you. I KNOW that our ideas for what that work looks like is different. I'm just trying to establish the deeper value connection at this point.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Justice is one of the three pillars of who I am. I have put my career on the line to fight for justice for others. One time even stepping in to stop the punishment of a person for something they thought she had done wrong, but it was actually my fault, on the flight line that could have ended my career on the spot.

Josh Foreman: Sweet.

3. What are your other two pillars?

[Random Facebook Guy]: 1. Aid and protect those with-in your power to do so.

2. Do everything in your power to improve yourself.

Josh Foreman: Excellent.

4. Can you provide an example of an ongoing self improvement project you've undertaken?


[Random Facebook Guy] hasn’t got back to me in a few days so I wanted to record this first attempt before the facebook thread disappears into the aether. I wanted to say that even this aborted attempt has been helpful in my goal. It clued me into the psychological premise of the exercise that I had felt, but not articulated. It’s very simple and obvious, but it is this: finding and articulating common values with someone who disagrees with you will lubricate the machinery of conversation. In most internet debates, the conversation is focused like a laser on the immediate disagreement. Attribution of evil is the immediate go-to method a human brain has for explaining why someone disagrees with you, and as long as the shared values you have remain hidden, that go-to explanation remains, subconsciously, dictating both your perception of your interlocutor, and how you feel you ought to engage with them. It makes them a hostile witness that you have to badger into submission to the truth, rather than a fellow explorer trying to figure out how best humans ought to live with each other.

So my project now has two building blocks to help me move forward next time I try this. First: Don’t expect the worst from someone who disagrees with you. Start out by assuming they share most of your values. You could be wrong, but doing this won’t actually HURT your case or your chances of opening someone’s mind to new ideas, and it will help keep YOUR mind open. Second: TELL your interlocutor that you presume that they share most of their core values. And that your disagreement is probably about the strategy for expressing those values best. (Because it probably is.)

I’m still trying to figure out how to distill the process I started with [random facebook guy] into a manageable format that anyone can do. I think I need a couple more attempts before I figure that out.


Your interlocutor is my cousin. Never thought I'd see him described as a conservative :p
Josh Foreman said…
Well I guess it's all relative! Also, why is your user name the same name as my favorite bands favorite song?

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