I’ve never seen our citizens more divided about politics than we are today.
We’re not simply dealing with differences of opinion between liberals and conservatives.
We’re witnessing two unrelated realities. The universe the left inhabits doesn’t appear to be the same universe the right lives in, and vice versa.
What I want to know is: How can we start talking with each other again in a language both sides can grasp? Rephrased slightly: How can we communicate across this divide, and perhaps find common ground?
A reader sent me a recent article that might hint at a starting point.
It’s “The Simple Psychological Trick to Political Persuasion,” by Olga Khazan, which appeared Feb. 1 in the online version of The Atlantic.
Khazan reports on the research of two professors, Matt Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Robb Willer of Stanford University, who think liberals and conservatives possess very different “moral frames” through which they view reality.
In my understanding of this idea, both groups are moral, but their moral values differ. Thus, they look at the same event — the plight of Syrian refugees, or the pollution of a forest — and see dramatically different things.
The secret to communicating with the other side, then, and even perhaps influencing the other group, is to appeal to the other side’s ethical code rather than your own.
In academic theory, liberals’ key values tend to be “harm and fairness.” That is, they’re primarily concerned with generosity, nurturance, equality, social justice and the like. Conservatives, on the other hand, value “group loyalty, authority, and purity.” Examples of this are patriotism, traditionalism, strictness and religious sanctity.
So, when President Trump issued an executive order temporarily halting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, liberals’ social media blew up with rants about how unfair the policy was to Muslims or how important it is to protect the vulnerable.
None of this would be likely to win conservatives over, Khazan says.
Feinberg, the psychologist, suggests that liberals might instead use an alternative argument when addressing conservatives on the subject:
“These refugees and immigrants are just like our family members who came to America in years past to seek a better life. All our ancestors wanted was to live the American dream, and that’s why today’s immigrants and refugees have chosen to come to America, so they too can live that same American dream that brought our families here. That dream is what our nation was founded on, it is what brought our grandparents and great-grandparents to this great land, and it is the great success story that these immigrants want to be part of.”
Same point: We should let these immigrants in.
Different reasons: It’s our patriotic duty to do so, and it demonstrates our loyalty to our ancestors and the American dream.
This changing of frames works in both directions.
In one study, Feinberg and Willer found liberals more sympathetic to a big military budget when it was presented as poverty-fighting — that is, the military offers poor people a chance to move up — than when it was presented as ensuring that the United States is the greatest nation in the world, an approach that appeals to conservatives.
Similarly, liberals became sympathetic to making English the official language of the United States, a conservative position, when it was framed as an appeal for fairness toward immigrants — that it would help them escape discrimination.
Feinberg and another researcher, Tilburg University’s Jan Volkel, discovered that the best way to persuade conservatives to dislike Trump was to frame arguments against him in terms of his supposed lack of patriotism rather than his alleged bigotry. Liberals were more likely to reject Hillary Clinton when she was portrayed as friendly to Wall Street than when she was tied to Benghazi.
Several steps are involved in learning to reframe our arguments, Feinberg says.
We have to recognize that the other side has different values. We have to know what those values are. We have to understand the other side’s values well enough to understand their moral perspective. We must use those values as part of a political argument.
All those steps presuppose a minimal open-mindedness from both factions, obviously; today, that open-mindedness might or might not be present.
And even people willing and able to take the first three steps frequently can’t take the final one, Feinberg warns: Often they refuse to frame an argument from the opposition’s viewpoint.
At the crucial moment, they refuse to — my words — lower themselves to the other side’s inferior level.
To some degree, then, our own hubris keeps us from discussing with each other and persuading each other and humanizing each other.
We don’t want to admit the other side might, to a surprising extent, consist of decent people who, even if misguided, mean well and have some valid points, too.
It’s much easier, and more satisfying, to write them off to our like-minded friends as oversensitive snowflakes or libtards or racists or knuckle-dragging cretins.
But “people typically do not do well when attacked,” Feinberg says. “This could simply push them to be more staunch in their position.”
Yep, never underestimate the power of feeling superior. It might be powerful enough to destroy our country someday.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.