What’s the matter with these people?”
“How could they possibly believe such nonsense?”
If you’re like me, you’ve asked some similar questions over the past few months. I’m determined for others to see my point of view and I believe in the importance of vigorous policy debate without the need for personal insults. But I also recognize that if I don’t start to engage people with whom I profoundly disagree there is no chance that I will compel someone to take a different position.
If, and it is a big “if” these days, we are serious about engaging people who see things differently we need to understand their motivations and reasoning. Researchers Robb Willer of Stanford and Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto, have documented how progressives and conservatives argue over issues employing a different moral grammar. Progressives tend to find arguments persuasive when they are couched in terms of fairness or justice. Conservatives on the other hand, will often be persuaded by a moral framework that speaks to patriotism, loyalty, and purity. It’s not just a question of my being right and you being wrong. Rather, I can’t possibly hope to convince you using a moral structure that you’ve never found persuasive. No wonder we become so frustrated with each other. It feels like we’re speaking a different language precisely because we are speaking a different (moral) language!
At our Thanksgiving tables, we might find ourselves conversing with family or friends with whom we profoundly disagree. But can we, if we really believe in our values, try to be persuasive in ways that the other will understand? Can I, if I am a progressive, speak about our lack of action to protect our environment because it isn’t just the fair thing to do, but the also the patriotic thing to do? If you believe that America really is supposed to be the land of the free, isn’t it right to argue that any policy that scapegoats refugees is not merely unfair, but it is fundamentally the act of a patriot to stand up for the marginalized? The logic works the other way too, of course. If conservatives want to persuade progressives that lower taxes really are necessary, please don’t start by talking about the purity of bootstrap pulling or it being the American way. You’ll lose the progressives in the room before you finish the sentence. Make a compelling argument about taxes through the lens of justice or fairness.
This isn’t a magic pill. People’s political persuasions, while not fixed, are rooted. But if you really believe that it’s high time you got to know “those people” a little better, it will probably help to speak their language.