I have noticed that sometimes when people who don’t like each other sit down together to talk about their differences, they like each other even less. This is also a conclusion by Cass Sunstein, although he is a little more equivocal in his statement of the situation. I recently finished his bestselling book called Nudge, so I respect his opinion, especially when it tracks with mine.
Sunstein’s research finds that when extremists are in groups with each other, their opinions become even more extreme and moderates are drawn to more extreme positions. He finds that when extremists are in groups with people from the other side, their opinions also become more extreme. People come with their ideas ready and simply mine information to support them.
Seems a pretty bleak situation, but it makes sense. Dialogue doesn’t always or even usually lead to reconciliation. Look at the various groups that have been engaged in dialogue for many years w/o result. It is like Woody Allen going to the psychotherapist. There is a lot of talk but no change. And yet, change does happen. People come together. Why? How?
I think we underestimate the value of avoidance and denial. In negotiations, you never want to get down to only ONE sticking point because once you get there it is just a wrestling match to see who can win. You are better off with a broad range of interests that can be traded and modified. The goal is to avoid the really hard decision until so much else has been accomplished that it doesn’t matter as much. Maybe it is possible to avoid it entirely.
This logic goes against the naive intuition expressed more or less in the statement, “If we cannot agree on the important points, what is the point of doing anything else.” Experience, however, indicates that this is often the only way to make progress. People become more reasonably when they have more at stake and when they are engaged over a broader, if shallower, front.
Getting to a happy result is actually hampered by too much care and respect and it can be hard to get to the broader definition w/o seeming to trivialize the “big issue.” (Sure we disagree about religion, but can’t we agree that we both like Coca-Cola?) Of course, one reason it is hard not to seem to be trivializing the big issue is because we are indeed trying to trivialize the big issue or at least shunt it to the margins where it won’t cause so much trouble. You really don’t have to bring it out.
A couple decades ago, human relations were damaged by the idea of catharsis – that you had to expose and express your feelings of fear, anger or hate. Recent studies have indicated that those who express these sorts of negative emotions just feel them stronger. In other words, the more you express your anger the angrier you get as a person. You are better off derailing it to the extent possible. The same goes for a lot of problems.
I saw a documentary about the late Bart the bear. Bart was the grizzly bear you saw in movies. He was usually roaring. They said that in real life he just opened his mouth. They dubbed in the sound later, because if he really roared in anger he REALLY got angry and that is not a good thing when you are talking about a grizzly bear. We are not so far removed from this kind of feeling ourselves.
When someone engages in actual violence and breaks the law, we have to come down on them hard and not ask about the “root cause.” Some people just have to be removed. But everything short of that maybe we should just lighten up. Confront extremism with tolerance and humor, but with as little respect as possible. Try to shunt it aside, obfuscate and dilute. Toleration and avoidance is NOT acceptance. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. The best way to neutralize extremism is not to defeat it head on but to make it irrelevant.