Changing Our Minds: A problem, and a starting point of a solution 

We have a problem: our social media platforms are a rancid mess of shouty arguments, abusive interactions and hot-headed debates that go nowhere. In the 2020s we are going to have to get much better at having debates and changing our minds on issues.

One of the unexpected consequences of the rise of social media and our global connectedness has been the polarisation of world views. Maybe when we didn’t know that many other people had very different attitudes, we could go through life with less bother. But now that people’s attitudes and world views are laid bare for all to see, it is hard to ignore some of these differences. 

Of course, some people get hot and bothered about things that don’t really matter, from sports teams to who should win a TV reality show – they should probably just calm down a bit. On the other hand, some of the issues that we’re now forced to engage with touch deeply on our core values, and many people find it hard to just ignore them. From debates about religion to abortion, from how we treat refugees to white supremacy, from #metoo to street protests against governments, we are confronted daily with issues that do not seem to have common ground or compromise options. Some people choose to retreat to the safety of cat videos and motivational memes. Others take up the fight and stand their ground. All in all, our digital, social engagement is a bit of a mess. We have to learn how to do better.

There are no quick fixes, but maybe there are four starting points that can lead us in the direction of a solution: 

1.Accept that you could be wrong. In fact, more than that, know for sure that you are definitely wrong about at least a few things. This is the most important starting point, demanding some humility, and a big dose of openness. There is no human being who is infallible, and no system of thought is completely watertight. We are all prone to error. We must enter discussions with the knowledge that possibly it is me that is wrong, and that this conversation is an invitation to identify my error, correct it and improve myself. Remember that unless someone is a psychopath, they believe their positions every much as you believe yours – and they have reasons for doing so. Which leads to the next point.

2. We should follow the advice given by Stephen Covey in his “7 Habits of Highly Successful People”: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Put yourself in the other person’s position, and try and engage in the debate from their perspective for a moment. Listen more, and listen for understanding, not merely as a means to develop your comeback response or next point. Genuinely seek to understand the other person’s position. A good technique here is to ask clarifying questions to give the other person every opportunity to ensue they’ve been clear and understood.

3. Be open to discussions, debates and conversations. Put yourself in a position where you can learn new things, hear new ideas, engage with difference. Our team actually has a number of interesting upcoming opportunities to do just that, which we’ve listed below (if you can’t attend in person, some of them have livestream and recorded options). These cover not just our standard business-focused topics, but also issues related to parenting and religion as well.

As a team, we’re not scared to go where the conversations take us, so join us if you can. And don’t forget: when you are confronted with well-reasoned arguments, you should be prepared to accept the outcome, even if it challenges your previously held beliefs. This puts the onus on those of us who are teachers and communicators to be clear, rational and compelling in the way we present information.

4. Know the difference between core beliefs and strong opinions. One of the reasons online debates get so heated so quickly, is that people often feel their core values are under attack. Let me illustrate. In the USA, the Second Amendment to the Constitution allows for citizens to own and carry guns. For many gun-owning Americans this has a lot less to do with personal safety than it does with freedom and individual rights. So, they will fight for the right to own guns, even as the number of gun-related casualties continues to rise.

You can only have this discussion if you’re talking about the same thing – and the two sides are not. One is talking about freedom, the other about school shootings. The same thing will happen in the near future when we start debating driverless cars, by the way. For many people, the ability to drive a car is directly linked to their independence and sense of freedom as an older teenager. To take this away from them is to strike at a core value. The more you strike at core values, the more pushback you will get, and the harder it will be for someone to change their mind. This is not the best place to start when having an online discussion. Rather look for common ground, affirm what you can in the other person’s view, attempt to put yourself in their shoes and understand the core values that might be in play.

We need more empathy and engagement, and more of a willingness to change our minds in the face of good evidence and well-reasoned argument. There’s more to be said on this important topic – I honestly believe our civilisation depends on it, and that we have lost our way. The four points above are a good start to correcting things.

Further reading:  10 Effective Ways Intelligent People Deal With Rude People

Upcoming Public Events by Graeme Codrington in August:

  • 30 July, Bryanston. 6pm. Support the Lesedi Saturday School project based learning and literacy programme. A 3-course dinner. Graeme will be presenting our South Africa in the 2020s keynote presentation. Details here.
  • 17 August, 6-8pm – Public debate between Graeme Codrington and James White: “Does the Bible restrict marriage to a man and woman?”. Details here. 
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