Sunday, October 15, 2017

However measured or far away

No one can agree with everyone else all the time, and maybe not even much of the time. While standing outside the mob of agreement, particularly on social media, is often praised, it isn’t automatically a good thing or a bad thing—it’s just a thing. But it can be a weird thing, that social opinion dissonance, especially when it’s in two directions at once.

Like most people, I often see things differently from the majority of those on either the Right or the Left, depending on the thing people are being opinionated about and what direction the pack leans. But lately I’ve had the weird experience of seeing things differently than both the Left and the Right—at the same time.

There’s no particular issue where this is the case, nor any particular position on an issue or news story. Instead, this happens intermittently, though with increasing frequency, and it’s often mostly to do with conclusions drawn.

One thing I place high value on is factual accuracy: It’s important to lay out all the facts on an issue, and then draw conclusions from the available evidence. Yet both the Right and the Left will take facts and draw the most absolutist/extreme conclusion, apparently to maximise political effect. This may rile up the True Believers, but it does nothing to win over the folks who aren’t already partisans (in the broadest sense—this is not necessarily about supporters of a particular political party).

The bigger issue is that it’s impossible to have a rational discussion, let alone debate, when one side is turning to absolutist language as their opening salvo. When absolutist rhetoric is introduced within a debate, it poisons it, but when it’s used at the very start, it strangles the infant debate before it can even breathe any life.

On top of that, when the hordes descend on anyone who doesn’t immediately nod in vigorous agreement with the pack’s preferred position, it prevents not just discussion and debate of the opinions the pack holds, but also the possibility of questioning the very assumptions on which those opinions are based. Nothing is learned or gained.

This isn’t new behaviour, but it’s been made more common by the increasing use of social media to discuss the issues of the day. Sure, people do sometimes seem to go out of their way to be awful to other people when they dare to express a different opinion, but this is a different sort of partisanship, more tribal. Lock-step agreement on assumptions about an issue is the new test for loyalty to one’s tribe, Left or Right.

On the other hand, sometimes standing apart from the crowd—one’s tribe in particular—can be just as dickish behaviour as that of those who attack dissidents for being dissidents. The question is, though, even if that’s true, what do we gain when people can’t even dare to challenge the assumptions underlying their tribe’s preferred position on something, regardless of their reasons for doing so? After all, people can have any number of reasons for questioning and/or challenging those assumptions, and what their reasons are is kind of irrelevant, really.

I sincerely doubt any of this will change any time soon—people seem to enjoy it far too much. But maybe we’d be better off if we remembered what Henry David Thoreau wrote:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
No one can agree with everyone else all the time, and maybe not even much of the time. Social opinion dissonance is perfectly okay, even when it’s in two directions at once. We need to learn that simple fact.

The well-known cartoon at the top of this post, "Duty Calls," is by cartoonist xkcd. Publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

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