A Mess of Contradictions. How Do We Find Ways Forward?

Do you believe you are not biased? Or, not very, anyway? Would it surprise you to know that each of us is born with a built in bias called “naïve realism”, where we believe we are not biased?

Naïve realism makes us believe our own views are reasonable, even if they are not. It makes it easy to default to judgment of other people and their views — because they are “just wrong”. It is as if accepting another person’s experience or view somehow invalidates our own or makes us wrong, and we have a hard time with that. But we live in a world where multiple truths, multiple experiences, multiple views and opinions exist. Not just some of the time. All of the time. It is all real. It is all true, to one degree or another. Generally, those degrees closer to our experiences are easier to accept, those most different are harder to accept.

The idea that views can be so easily categorized as right and wrong is antithetical to finding our way out of the increasingly fragmented, polarized and often inflamed exchanges we increasingly find ourselves in or witnessing. We see people, sometimes even ourselves, resort to the most primal of instincts of defending our own views and dismissing another’s views. We have seen these exchanges descend rapidly into de-humanizing another person or group simply because of disagreeing with their views or trying to protect our own or our own sense of identity, our territory or turf. And, of course, there is also nothing simple in this.

How is it that we come to defend our own views passionately even when so much contradictory information exists? How did we come to such a toxic state of public discourse? It is complex, there are several dynamics at play including fear and behavioural sciences offer us an opportunity to find our way to understanding – even when it presents us with “cognitive dissonance”.

Cognitive dissonance is that feeling of discomfort that occurs when we try to hold two contradictory thoughts, opinions or views at the same time. One view resonates with our beliefs and the other disagrees with it. When we are presented with evidence that works against our beliefs, to maintain a feeling of comfort, we reject the new evidence. What if we were able to hold that space and live into that discomfort for even a few minutes? And then a few minutes longer? Without feeling like you have to give up your own view or invalidate your own experience, could you possibly come to enough curiosity to try to understand why another person feels the way they do, why they hold the view they do, what it is in their experience that has shaped their worldview?

Our view of the world – our worldview – is shaped locally and socially – by where we are at any given time and by the people we come into contact with, from when we are born to now. Our views shift and change over time, often without our awareness of it happening. Our views of the world are supported and reinforced by the people we surround ourselves with. If we are part of a dominant culture it can be less easy, and sometimes almost impossible, to see and acknowledge the perspectives and experiences of other people.

At any given time in society, there are voices that go unheard and oppressed. While this may not surprise us, what does surprise us at times is who or what groups feel unheard and oppressed. We might expect to hear it from Native American or First Nations or African American or African Canadian populations but are surprised, for instance, to hear it from white people in the rust belt of the United States. The inability to hear it keeps it under the surface, bubbling along until something occurs to inflame it.

The current US president has tapped into themes that many people believe deeply in – so deeply that it is part of their sense of identity. When our identity is threatened, we respond as if our very life is threatened. That is one reason why there is so much defensiveness and combativeness in exchanges. And why we pick through information to hold onto that which supports our sense of identify despite so much contradictory information existing.

Underlying all of this is a sense of betrayal – many people who voted for the current president have felt betrayed for a long time by systems that have not worked for them. They were likely joined by those more recently feeling disaffected or like their voice is not being heard. Those who are now at the behest of a current administration they did not vote for feel betrayed by those who did. We dance around this betrayal because we do not know how to confront it in ways that lead to dialog and understanding, and because betrayal is a word laden with dark emotional significance. Most people can barely take themselves to the place of even being able to say the word and acknowledge their experience, let alone recover from it.

Our greatest opportunity to influence someone – or even ourselves – is before we make a decision. Once we make a decision, we go out of our way to confirm and reconfirm it, becoming more attached to it in the process. We are motivated to defend and reinforce our decision – “motivated reasoning” – because it is now part of how we see and understand ourselves. Changing our mind is tantamount to an identity crisis, so we keep looking for information that supports our point of view – “confirmation bias”. The more we do this, the more we change the circuitry of our brains, deepening particular neural pathways, making it easier and faster for cues to travel these pathways. The more attached we become to our decision, our view, the more likely we are to ignore contradictory information – obviously it can’t be true and also to fall into disbelief about how the other person or group could possibly think and act the way they do. Just notice what links you click on and what ones you don’t. Notice your reaction to contradictory information or views.

Our total disbelief that others could have a contradictory view, which we often believe is not based in fact or reality because it is not based in our facts or reality, further hinders our potential to be in productive conversation. Instead of trying to understand this different perspective or how someone came to hold it we are more likely to want to ridicule them and be angry at them. This is not compassionate or empathetic to those who hold a different perspective and being compassionate or empathetic does not mean we need to agree with them or change our own view.

It is complex and it requires us to find points of connection, to meet each other in our humanity — which is easy to say and less easy to create the circumstances and environment where we can find these points of connection especially when in the presence of very disparate points of view. If National discourses do not take us in this direction, then we, each and every one of us who remembers our basic humanity, need to sit with what we do not know, sit with the uncomfortableness that arises from our own dissonance to find ways forward. Maybe we need to go out and find the very thing or person we think we fear to find a way to build strength and opportunity from and through our differences. How else do we do this thing?

befriend the other

Note: In a recent Worldview Intelligence program as we explored this very topic, it was pointed out that there is a time and place for different responses and responding to an injustice occurring right in front of you might be a time for action now and conversation later. The need to create exploratory spaces does not mean there is also not a need for other courses of action. It is not one or the other but many possibilities at any given time.