Disagreeing With Strangers on Twitter

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Recently, I co-wrote an article about climate change that led to a spirited exchange on Twitter with a stranger who disagreed with the position I had taken with my co-writer. In the course of this online debate it hit me: the discussion was unlikely to ever go anywhere regardless of how calm, reasonable, and polite I tried to be.

If each of us believed without doubt in the position we held, there appeared to be little room for shifts in consciousness. It stood to reason that all views couldn’t be correct, right? However such an attitude in itself is symptomatic of belief in a single interpretation of reality. Far better a mindset to adopt is one that allows for the possibility of all states being as equally valid as none, a handful or just one. At some point in humankind’s development, had the art of debate passed from our grasp into nebulousness, increasingly replaced by point-making disguised as reasonableness? It’s as if for so many people their thoughts are so ideologically entrenched that consideration of alternative perspectives lies beyond comprehension. Have we lost the ability to hear ideas outside our frame of reference?

The species has gone from dictatorship in the form of monarchy, to democracy via elections, to this online sphere of preferences and desire dictating justification. The capacity to engage in critical thinking appears to have been diminished by the promotion of ‘neutral’ facts, with the convenience of ignoring that interpretation could, and often is, biased. Every supposition, no matter how baseless it might seem upon first encounter, should be analysed in case something fundamental has been overlooked. On the matter of well-rehearsed arguments that have been debunked by others, that is where error seems to easily creep in. Dismissal tends to be the automatic response to sentiments on the opposite end of the position held, an approach which in abstract comes across as flawed. Yet when a view expressed, so fundamentally challenges strongly endorsed beliefs that sometimes are tied to identity, it’s unsurprising those views are swept aside almost immediately. To your ideological opponent, those views could resonate for them in ways that yours do for you. So where does that leave the future of debate, knowing how intractable ideas can be? Who gives way first, without such action being taken as weakness or a lack conviction? When you respect your opponent but you’re not afforded the same level of courtesy it can seem as though considerate behaviour is not worthwhile.

There needs to be a way to have discussions where the other is seen as a person, not an opponent. There needs to be joint desire to arrive at truths that can be held as reliable. It would probably require a return to basics, building up of successive truths from foundational concepts that can be accepted by all involved in the discussion. What are the aspects of the issue that everyone can accept? What are the areas of dispute and why is that the case? What kinds of evidence would be acceptable to convince the sceptical? Importantly, what information challenges your identity, position in society, or way of being? Without that level of self-scrutiny and self-awareness, it will be a struggle to recognize when you lean towards a perspective based on personal benefit, and in some cases privilege. Some discussions will likely reach an impasse, but when that happens, unpicking what lies behind it is just as important as the belief in having a position that is meant to be right, rational, reasonable, or valid.

Without figuring out how to respectfully debate and explore positions held, reality descends into a permanent mudslinging state. Sometimes it will become apparent how flawed a position is, and other points, it will be about different approaches to handling a perceived situation with what is acceptable coming down to the degree of sacrifices everyone is prepared to make. For if you accept that the person on the other side holds onto their viewpoint as strongly as you do yours, why should they let go when you won’t consider doing so? Everyone has to be willing to accept they might be wrong.

Taking this principle from the realm of ideas, to physical circumstances of distributing or sharing limited resources, it is important to consider those who historically have been disadvantaged, and what might be needed in order to redress imbalances. Ultimately fully comprehending the complexities of concepts such as equity, fairness, and equality may be tricky, in which case it is the responsibility of humankind to collectively work to transform understanding of such terms through education, be that formally or informally.

In short, we all need to regularly self-reflect to identify our individual biases and the drivers of the principles we live by. It is also important to consider how inequality or unfairness may be endorsed through the positions we hold; it can be difficult to push yourself to think outside of existing structures and ways of seeing the world, but it’s not impossible. We need to be bold in our considerations of the world and others, striving to dream outside of the established order that often relies on others suffering for the sake of our pleasures. Each person should be able to thrive, for no one person deserves a better quality of life than anyone else and if with all our intelligence we can’t figure out ways to equally spread the burdens of leading a harmonious existence with nature, then we’re failing as a species.

If we’re to be better in all aspects of life, it’s up to each of us to figure out what that means in our corner of the world, be that analogue or digital.

Will E

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