If it seems like too often we are talking past one another, the truth is, we usually are. Arguments that seem striking and self-evident to one side fall flat for the other, leaving the two sides no choice but to judge, claiming that their own failure to persuade must be due to the other side’s ignorance or (worse) to sinister motives.
Exhibit 1: Abortion
Take the controversial subject of abortion on demand. The pro-life perspective appeals to moral foundations like “sanctity” and “harm” and “authority” when discussing this issue.
We have no right (authority) to harm an unborn member of the human family (harm). Because life is precious (sanctity), it deserves to be protected.
The pro-choice perspective appeals to the “harm” foundation as well, but changes the recipient of harm by introducing the foundation of fairness.
It does harm to a woman when we demand that she carry a pregnancy to term (harm); so we have no right (authority) to force her to face this challenge when men are exempt (fairness).
You can see there’s an element of authority here, but it has shifted from God’s authority over life to a woman’s authority over her body, apart from the government’s intrusion.
If it’s true that morality “binds and blinds,” as Jonathan Haidt says, then it’s easy to see how abortion advocates and abortion opponents will gather in their respective camps and fail to see the major concerns of the other side. The pro-life crowd sees the abortion advocate as unmerciful, filled with contempt for human life:
Planned Parenthood doesn’t care about women; they only want to fill their coffers with blood money.
The pro-choice crowd sees abortion opponents as chauvinistic and manipulative:
Anti-choice people are religious fanatics who want men to control women’s bodies again, just like in the days before birth control and abortion on demand. They don’t care about women, just the fetus.
Neither one of these lines of argumentation are accurate. Plenty of Planned Parenthood employees have a heart for women, however horribly misguided their concern. Abby Johnson, former Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life activist, wrote about the women she worked with:
“Oh, how we love to vilify our opponents – from both sides. How easy to assume that those on ‘our’ side are right and wise and good; how those on ‘their’ side are treacherous and foolish and deceptive. I have found right and good and wisdom on both sides. I have found foolishness and treachery and deception on both sides as well.”
On the other hand, the idea that those who oppose abortion harbor some monstrous secret desire to control women’s bodies and limit their progress is absurd. The generosity of thousands of pro-life advocates across the nation to women who decide to keep their babies disproves the notion that opposing abortion is only about the fetus and not the family.
Demonizing the Opposition
None of this means that pro-life and pro-choice candidates are equally right because they’re all sincere. One side is advocating for the right to slaughter innocent human beings. Evil is evil, no matter how sincerely performed.
But we should be careful about being “blinded” by the group we’ve aligned with, because we can easily begin to foster and spread untruths we sincerely believe. The stereotypes don’t sound outlandish when they are offered within the community our morality has bound us too. Unfortunately, our moral convictions can blind us from seeing the real motivations on the other side, leading to the demonization of our opponents and the shutting down of meaningful conversation.
The Grand Narratives of Liberalism and Conservatism
One reason it’s difficult to get “on the same page” with the person on the other side of the political aisle is because we are working from different “narratives.” Every good story has a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (introduce a threat or challenge), and an end (resolution).
Haidt describes the liberal narrative as one of “heroic liberation.” Authority, hierarchy, power, tradition are chains that must be broken in order to set free the individual.
Meanwhile, the conservative narrative is “heroism of defense,” where society is like a home that is being reclaimed from damage done by termites. Liberty is threatened, loyalty is declining, authority has been subverted, and sanctity will disappear.
If you are working from the “liberation” narrative on an issue such as gay marriage, for example, no line of argumentation is likely to persuade you that gay marriage is a bad idea. Traditional marriage represents a hierarchy, an institution that prioritizes male/female relationships over other couplings. Therefore, marriage must be redefined (“expanded”) in order to establish full rights for gays and lesbians.
If you are working from the “heroic defense” narrative, gay marriage is a travesty because it threatens the foundations of society. It denies the sanctity of marriage as has always been understood, opens the door for further expansions that weaken the family, and threatens the liberty of anyone who dissents from the new morality.
One side sees gay marriage as breaking the chains of oppression. The other side sees gay marriage as an example of cultural rot which is slowly destroying one of society’s most cherished and important institutions.
So How Do We Talk?
Humans will always be likely to talk past one another because we don’t agree on which of these narratives is right. But the first step in persuasion is being aware of the ways your moral views bind you to likeminded people and then blind you to some of the legitimate points of the other side.
Perhaps that is where we should begin, with self-awareness and self-understanding. We are more likely to be persuasive when we know “where the other person is coming from,” even if we disagree. At the very least, understanding where our own moral convictions come from will lower our frustration level when we converse with other people, even if we still find it hard to change someone’s mind.