Ideological Isolation

This post was sparked by something one of my friends said the other day.  Do we really want world peace?  Because a lot of the things we say are increasingly angry and derisive.  We insult people who don't agree with us, rather than trying to have a meaningful conversation about it.

I've noticed this more and more over the last year or so.  I used to think of myself as a very open-minded person.  When I was a totally believing Mormon, I shared my office with an atheist.  He and I would talk about religion often, and it was (nearly) always a very constructive conversation.  I always had in the back of my mind the hope that I would convert him.  In fact, he had even met with the missionaries for several months and attended LDS church services (prior to ever meeting me).

We were able to discuss our differing views politely and intelligently.  He would say how he felt, and I would say how I felt.  He'd ask questions about my religion, and I would answer.  I had several questions for him as an atheist, but I don't think I asked all of them.  At any rate, they were enriching conversations and I enjoyed them.  Even though I was sure that I was right, I was able to respect him and his beliefs and entertain thoughts and ideas that I didn't myself agree with.

I still think I am that open-minded.  But what I've noticed is that Internet interaction--in particular, interaction on Facebook--has become (or perhaps has always been) extremely polarizing.  I see very few level-headed and intelligent conversations.  I see tons of statements to the effect of "if you don't agree with me, you're an idiot".  I've had tons of people tell me that I need to surround myself with people who agree with me.  I've seen lots of people post things about how frustrating "stupid people" are.  I've seen lots of heated debates, lots of friendships ended, and lots of anger and explosion.  And I don't think it's healthy.

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with being angry, or with expressing anger.  I don't think there are "positive" and "negative" emotions.  I think there are emotions that you feel, there are reasons that you feel that way, and sharing them with the people that matter to you is important and healthy.  What I do think is unhealthy is the unfriending, blocking, ignoring, and distancing yourself from anyone who disagrees with you.

Now, I don't want to be friends with someone who's sending me streams of messages about why my opinion is wrong or why I'm living my life wrong.  I don't think anyone wants that, and I think it's appropriate to avoid contact with such persons.  But, I think sometimes that sentiment extends too far and crosses the line into "You don't agree with me, so I don't like you anymore."  That's what I think is unhealthy.  People should be able to disagree, and to share their disagreeing viewpoints without the conversation devolving into casting insults about the other person's mother.

The major reason I think that this isolation is so dangerous is that it breeds radicalism.  You only ever talk to people who agree with you, so you project and think that everyone in the world (or at least every "rational" person in the world) agrees with you too, because you've cut out of your life anyone who disagrees with you.  People of differing viewpoints do the same.  Then, when you come into contact with someone of the other camp, you both have and express contempt and derision for each other.  Neither one is willing to listen to the other person's perspective and only wants to insult the other and tell them how wrong they are and how stupid they are for thinking how they do.  There is no benefit in this kind of conversation.

I think that there should be a marketplace of ideas, where all people are allowed to share how they feel, and they are heard, their ideas are considered and reasoned through, and other people can peruse all these ideas and decide which ones they find most rational.  I think two people with opposing viewpoints should be able to sit down and have a conversation without getting offended that the other person doesn't agree, and without calling names or resorting to other logical fallacies to defame or ridicule the opposing viewpoint or the person voicing it.

Many of my family members have told me that I should not ever talk to them about certain topics--such as homosexuality and religion.  This is because we disagree.  I think that's very harmful.  I have a brother that I've discussed these matters with quite extensively via email and he and I have (after some frustration and hurt feelings, to be sure) reached a mutual understanding.  We can talk about things that we disagree on and be completely civil about it.  We don't have hurt feelings, we don't insult or offend each other, in fact our relationship is quite healthy.  And I think that's an important part of any relationship.

I had one friend who was discussing something on my wall with me the other day and at one point he stopped and sent me a private message saying that he was sorry and that he didn't like to argue with friends.  I thought it was rather sad that he made that decision because I was enjoying the conversation and I was glad to hear about the opinions that he had.  I like hearing other people's perspectives because I know that I often suffer from tunnel vision and think that my way of seeing things is the only possible (or logical) way of seeing them.  So, I enjoy debates.  I enjoy arguments because I get to learn things.  Not just the things that people are sharing with me, but I also get to learn about them as well--how they see the world, and what's important to them.

While I was visiting my parents in May, I had a nice long conversation with each of them and I felt that it was very productive.  I can't speak for them, but I personally walked away from each of those conversations feeling much better than before the conversation started.  I felt like we had made some serious progress at understanding each other.  Since then, however, I cannot say things have been that nice.  This is one reason why I think it's a fundamental difference between in-person communication versus online communication.  The emails that we have sent back and forth to each other seem to have polarized us much further than we ever were prior to my visit in May, which is rather sad.  And I haven't heard from either of them in a couple weeks now, and frankly I don't expect to hear from them anytime soon.

One of my cousins posted as her status update on Facebook something along the lines of "Has anyone noticed that Facebook is no longer a way to keep in touch, but just to shove your opinions in everyone else's face?"  It was a very good point, and it made me think about my own actions.  I've been using Facebook primarily to post my own opinions about things for the last year and a half.  And perhaps that's not appropriate.  I think that it's good for people to voice their own opinions, but there does seem to be something here--when I post something on my wall and mean it only to be "hey guys, this is how I feel, share how you feel too" it seems to often be interpreted (in varying degrees) as "You'd better agree with me, or you're not really my friend anymore".  I certainly don't want to give that impression.

There may be things that I need to clear up.  I've noticed that people often infer things that I didn't really mean to say, or imply, and yet the person reading what I'm saying sees that it is clearly implied.  So, here's a list of impressions that people might have had from the things I've said and done that I would like to clear up now (in no particular order, other than the order they popped into my head).  I'm doing this because I think that jumping to conclusions, inferring things that weren't implied, and the like are one major factor in why online communication is so highly inflammatory.

  1. I don't think you're a bigot just because you eat at Chick-Fil-A.  I think that the COO is bigoted, and I think that banning gay marriage is bigotry.  If you support a ban on gay marriage, or any other law that would effectively make different classes of people unequal in legal standing, then I think that you're a bigot.
  2. I don't think that you're brainwashed just because you're a member of the LDS church.  I do believe that the LDS church practices brainwashing, and I do believe that I was brainwashed.  I believe that the church wants its members to be blind followers.  But those are all general statements.  They are not to be interpreted universally.  I know some people who study church history and confusing points of doctrine and try to find answers to the strangeness of it all, and who come to their own conclusions as to what is right and what is wrong.  So I cannot think that all Mormons are blind followers.
  3. I don't think you're evil because you're religious.  I think that religion is evil.  I think that much evil is done in the name of religion.  There is plenty of evidence to indicate that throughout history, religion has been a scourge on science and social progress.  Christianity fought against abolition of slavery, it fought against integration of the races, and it is now fighting against marriage equality.  I think it has a very bad track record for being on the right side of history.  And so, I think it is evil.  But, I do know a few religious people who are genuinely good and kind and do support social progress and the sciences.  So I cannot think that all believers are bigots and evildoers.  
  4. I don't think you're stupid if you disagree with me.  If I did, I wouldn't have any friends.  No one likes to be called stupid, and no one would want to be friends with me if I called them stupid every time they voiced an opinion that's not mine.  I do think that some ideas that I don't share are stupid ideas.  But smart people can think things that are stupid.  Some of my ideas are stupid, and I like to think of myself as a smart person.  I do think it's stupid to believe in something without any evidence at all that it's true.  But that doesn't mean that I think someone who relies on faith is necessarily stupid.  
  5. I won't get mad at you for disagreeing with me.  I may argue with you heatedly.  And if you don't like that, let me know and I'll try to argue with you without getting angry.  But, even if I am angry, I'm not mad at you.  I don't hate you.  I don't want to never talk to you again.  I think continued dialog is always the best option--as long as you're willing to be reasonable.  I want you to feel comfortable with disagreeing with me, I want you to feel welcome to share your ideas and feedback with me.  If you think I'm responding to your feedback with too much aggression, let me know and I can tone it down.
  6. I don't want to ridicule you.  I want to respect you.  I may ridicule your beliefs, and I may ridicule certain ideas or opinions that you hold.  But, I try to do so in general--on my own blog, and on my own wall.  I don't go out of my way to ridicule any individual person, or things that you may post in your own space.  I might discuss the matter with you.  I may point out that a certain statement seems to be illogical, but I do try to do so respectfully and if I cross a line when doing something like this, I would appreciate if you would let me know.  I can think that something you've said is nonsense, but not say anything about it, out of respect for you.  Every once in a while something I post isn't up for debate, but for the most part, I'm always open for discussion on anything.  And I welcome it.
  7. By and large, what I say is what I mean.  I try to articulate my thoughts and feelings as accurately and completely as possible.  If you're reading something between the lines, the chances are it's not there.  I didn't mean it.  That being said, if you would like clarification on something I've said, I always welcome questions.  Ask me if I meant to imply such-and-such.  Maybe I did.  Maybe I didn't.  But, for the most part, I don't like making people play guessing games, trying to figure out what I really mean.  I say precisely what I'm thinking and leave it at that.  
Well that was kind of unexpected.  I guess my mind's wandering a lot tonight.  The main point of this post was to say, I think we should all try a bit harder to converse with people even when they're saying things we don't agree with.  It's healthy to entertain thoughts that other people have, even if you don't believe it yourself.