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By all appearances, Megan Phelps-Roper was a monster. As the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps, she spent much of her free time picketing soldiers’ funerals and gay pride parades with signs like, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” To her well-educated family of lawyers, angry confrontation was just a part of life - a trial of faith that only served to reinforce moral certitude. Megan’s primary role was to maintain Westboro’s Twitter presence, where she poured through pages of unbridled venom. From the safety of their keyboards, her opponents were free to unleash their darkest thoughts as she defended the “truth” no one wanted to hear.
Yet, some people didn’t confront her with anger. They asked questions and tried to understand the theology behind her beliefs. It was these civil conversations that opened her eyes to the contradictions throughout her dogmas. Her responses remained confident, but the certainty began to unravel. This was the beginning of the end. In 2012, she and her sister Grace left the church.
“Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.”
- Haruki Murakami
Life is not a battle between good and evil people. With few sociopathic exceptions, most of us are capable of a broad range of behavior, both socially constructive and destructive. Each of us comes with a nature (our genes) that then reacts to our nurture (the environment). We are all just humans trying to make sense of our experiences.
This isn’t to excuse any behavior. I am not the moral relativist here to claim equality between every conceivable lifestyle. Far from it. I have strong opinions about what values are most fruitful for individuals and society. But these beliefs are predicated on my understanding of humans as social creatures. We cannot thrive if we do not work well in groups.
I Feel, Therefore I Know
When working with humans it is helpful to expect them to behave like humans. You’d think this would be obvious to history’s most socially successful species, but if my own experience is any indicator, this just isn’t natural. We expect others to interpret events with the same logical clairvoyance that, we are certain, is guiding our own analysis.
But, human minds don’t take in data in an unbiased fashion and then form opinions. As the moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt explains, “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” In other words, people don’t usually reason to come to conclusions. They feel a conclusion must be right and then reason to justify that feeling. Even the most rational people are disproportionately swayed by intuitions. With more intellect comes more capacity to build such a strong case for these intuitions that feelings can appear absent from the entire equation.
Most of us assume the opposite. We approach each belief as if we came to it through unbiased self-reflection. We go into every interaction certain of our perceptions and intent to explain them so that our opponent can see the error in his ways. Anyone who has mediated an argument knows this pattern well. Facts mutate, fade, and amplify to confirm the certainty felt on both sides.
This isn’t to discredit the importance of logic. Society breaks down when discourse isn’t predicated on a mutual desire for truth. The marketplace of ideas depends on people coming together so ideas can be combined and refined through competition. Yet, discourse has no chance if we don’t recognize that it is being conducted by humans, not impartial reasoning machines.
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
The emotions we elicit in communication matter. When you tell someone they are wrong, you trigger the fight or flight response and their mind will go to work finding a way to prove that, in fact, you are wrong. Call someone stupid and all you’ve done is ossified their opinions.
With a better understanding of human nature, it is easy to see why the modern environment has pulled us to extremes. Media networks compete to increase time on screen and nothing ensures our attention quite like outrage. Political rants and “Crazy Liberal/Conservative Gets Owned” videos spread like wildfire - each exacerbating the cycle of extremism.
The Cycle of Extremism
Like the Hatfields and McCoys or any historical blood feud, the cycle of extremism follows a general pattern of reciprocal escalation. Every action tends to have an equal and opposite reaction. For example:
Larry and Ralph grow up in the same politically mixed town. As they age Larry’s politics become center-left while Ralph’s lean slightly right. One day they have an argument about border control. Larry focuses on how unfair it is that arbitrary political boundaries make for vastly different standards of living between Mexican and U.S. citizens. Ralph focuses on the need for governments to maintain order by enforcing policies. Both leave the argument frustrated that they couldn’t convince their friend.
Larry goes home and watches MSNBC where his opinions are reinforced. On Facebook, he sees an article about a 16-year-old illegal immigrant who came to the United States when he was two. Larry empathizes with the boy’s fear of deportation and is disgusted by the racially charged comments he sees below the article. He interjects a comment of his own only to be called an entitled bleeding heart who hates America. Now he is angry and more convinced that Ralph is being pulled in by the distortions of racist fear-mongers.
Ralph heads home to watch Fox News where his opinions are reinforced. He jumps on Facebook and sees a story about the Social Justice Warrior movement spreading through college campuses. He reads about the demands for safe spaces and the resignations of well-intentioned progressive university faculty like Mary Spellman and Bret Weinstein. Now he is convinced that Larry is being brainwashed in a dangerous new set of dogmas that threaten free speech and America altogether.
Larry and Ralph’s next conversation is more heated. Larry calls Ralph a bigot. Ralph accuses Larry of being a delusional utopianist. The two leave and return to their echo chambers where the focus remains on their opponent’s extremes. Each new event is funneled through this lens. Their mediums strip quotes of context to appear in their worst light and only show the most absurd or vicious displays. Of course, these grow more common as members of each side meet the perceived extremist threat with increased extremism.
Through this cycle of extremism, individuals fade into categories. Liberals become easily manipulated bleeding hearts who dislike everything America stands for. Conservatives become anti-intellectual bigots who will go to any length to maintain the current hierarchies. Narratives develop where opponents have some irredeemable, insurmountable flaw that serves to discredit any opinion they hold. The other side becomes a lesser form of human.
De-Humanizing and Re-Humanizing
It is much easier to treat humans inhumanely when they’ve been dehumanized. History’s most ruthless native American tribe, the Comanche, called themselves Numunu, meaning people. To their mind, other tribes were not people, at least in the sense that Comanches were.
Similarly, the Chinese refer to their country as Zhong Guo, meaning middle or central country/kingdom. Their traditional worldview saw China as the center of the civilized world surrounded by barbarians. Likewise, the word “barbarian” comes from the Romans who called all non-Romans barbarians because their crude languages sounded like nothing but a bunch of “Bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.” More recently, American colonization and Trans-Atlantic slavery were justified by flexible religious interpretations and the Nazi philosophy was predicated on racist social Darwinist theory.
We are a tribal species that yearns for like-minded groups, but group identities don’t have to define themselves by their opponents. Even more, our categories don’t have to be so rigid. There is truth to be found across the spectrum of human experiences. This is the strength of a marketplace of ideas. By interacting with people of different backgrounds and strengths our ideas and perceptions are exposed to counterpoint where they grow best. But even if some of these “others” in our world have nothing to offer us, they are humans. They too are just trying to make sense of how to live best given their experiences and their nature.
Justin and I talk a lot about the standard model and how it fails to honor the most basic needs for human thriving. Most people are operating within this broken model. Their trajectory is set by the stress of constant email interruptions, an environment of anonymity, compulsive scrolling, junk media that is engineered for outrage, and often meaningless, sedentary, sunlight-deprived work. It is no wonder that people aren’t perfect. And the best way to reach someone isn’t to tell them they are living wrong. We are emotional creatures, after all. The best way to influence others is to see them as humans.
The way we communicate has the potential to arborize people’s animosities or soften their defenses. If your goal in any interaction is to have influence, then domination won’t work. You have to start by de-moralizing the interaction and honoring your opponent’s thought process. How did they come to see the world as they do? What passions inspire their convictions? From that respect, movement may be possible. As Haidt explains:
“The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light. You may not agree, but you’ll probably shift from Manichaean disagreement to a more respectful and constructive yin-yang disagreement.”
The same will happen for them. At the very least, your behavior may shatter their simplified categorizations and offer the possibility for future openness.
We tend to be far more complex and likable than our labels. You may be the intelligent conservative whose thoughtfulness helps a liberal see that conservatism has a strong intellectual foundation that warrants consideration. Or, you could be the respectful liberal who opens the eyes of a libertarian-conservative to the domains where regulation is necessary.
These categorizations stretch far beyond politics. We stereotype southerners, Yankees, Europeans, yuppies, hipsters, NFL fans, and even CEOs. Each time we do this we miss an opportunity to understand the world better. There will always be necessary differences in opinion and factions of like-valued people. Yet with a more human approach, we can soften these borders and strengthen what bonds the whole. As a social species, this harmony is to our own benefit. What’s good for the hive tends to be good for the bee.