I created a private Facebook group nearly two years ago that focused on constructive dialogue.
The dream for the group – Disagreeing Agreeably Is an Art – was to create a platform on Facebook that would encourage people from the entire spectrum of philosophical approaches to engage with each other, abandon their silos, and cultivate meaningful and cordial interactions among people from vastly divergent tribes.
I knew it was ambitious in the toxic realm of social media during an age when Americans struggle to agree on objective reality. However, I firmly believed that there were people who identify as conservative who would enjoy sharing ideas with people who identify as liberal in an arena where name-calling and ad hominem attacks are verboten.
Nearly two years into the experiment, our findings are not necessarily encouraging for those who would like to see the U.S. be a collection of more united states.
The most glaring reality of our now 400-strong membership is that the vast majority of the stalwarts and regular contributors would call themselves progressive and say that they more closely identify with the Democratic party.
Quite a few self-described conservatives have passed through, but they have either been removed for an unwillingness to follow our expectations about appropriate discourse or they have departed in a huff, declaring that the liberals “dogpile” them every time they attempt to make a case for their vision of the world.
One man’s “dogpile” is, of course, another woman’s clearly articulated argument, supported by data, peer-reviewed journals and logic.
What we have found, repeatedly, is that our conservatives vouchsafe the latest talking points they have received from one of a few popular media sources, expecting everyone else to accept their regurgitated pablum at face value.
When they are invariably confronted with dissonance – in the form of evidence, legal documents, factual information and rational thoughts – the response has consistently been to become hostile, cry foul or some combination of both. They seem genuinely surprised, and perhaps a little hurt, that they are not celebrated as the poet laureates of anger and autocracy.
Our left-leaning majority, for their part, have taken to baiting their adversaries into debates in order to expose them, and some members of the group just can’t help but twist the knife a little bit more than is necessary in making their points.
I can remind every member of the rules on a near daily basis, but there are some very bright, capable folks who simply can’t resist offering an extra jab to those with whom they disagree. This approach violates the spirit, if perhaps not the letter, of our group’s constitution, whose main rule, above all else, is to avoid personal attacks.
Were I to attempt to create this group again, I might consider attempting to equal the numbers of left- and right-leaning members in an effort to offer equity and balance.
My original hypothesis was that, in a safe space, adults would be able to cavort with one another in a friendly and mutually informative fashion. In disproving that flight of fancy, I have landed on some new, and perhaps more cynical, theories. Here are three:
- The majority tends to take advantage of their numbers and mistreat the minority. This seems to have been borne out by human history, even when the majority identifies as compassionate.
- Conservatives struggle with empathy and/or the ability to imagine how someone outside of their cultural bubble feels about the world.
- The polarization within modern U.S. life has reached a stage where both sides are willing, and perhaps anxious, to dehumanize anyone who doesn’t share their vision for the world. Even on a site where nothing is at stake beyond rhetoric and time spent, it is very difficult to find anyone who will admit that they are wrong or that the other side might have a point.
Tragically, most of us are looking for ways to confirm our own biases rather than considering how anyone else came to their positions on issues.
It would be so nice to believe that everyone is carefully cultivating their views through research and rational thinking, rather than picking a team and passively accepting the group think that has become so pervasive. Failing that, one would hope that we could all be a bit nicer to each other at the very least.
Disagreeing agreeably remains an art form, and like so many creative enterprises in progress, it’s a messy one.
Our evolution continues, as does our recruitment of clear-eyed conservatives, rational liberals and a quorum that includes both sides in pursuit of knowledge, kindness and, above all, truth, whatever that is.