“Why do we argue? Why do we fight? Everybody thinks God's on their side. Count to ten before you throw a stone. Whatever you believe, you might be wrong.” This refrain comes from a song by Paul Thorn. The last four words are the song’s main message, repeated several times throughout the lyrics. Thorn refers mostly to religious differences, but his suggestion can be easily applied to any kind of cultural or political divide.
I love the idea of questioning one’s strongly held beliefs. Moving away from crushing certainty (“I am right, you are wrong!”) to vulnerability is essential if we want to get out of the vicious cycle of affective polarization. At the same time, I do not think that reversing our perception to “You are right, I am wrong!” is necessarily the best solution. Although we might be willing to admit that we are wrong on some occasions, there are many convictions that are too dear for us to flip the switch. We should neither force ourselves to do that, nor hope that others will suddenly take a 180-degree turn on issues they are passionate about. Our efforts to decrease social polarization should not hinge on such unrealistic expectations.
But how can we have meaningful debates about any issues if we don’t classify ideas as “right” and “wrong”? If I say that there is a glass on the table, but you say that there is no glass to be seen, surely only one of us can be right. Or, in a more controversial example, if I say that the Earth is flat and you say that it is round, only one perspective should be able to prevail.
It is certainly true that the physical reality we share is the same for all the people, no matter what their convictions are. But it is also true that no individual can possibly know all the characteristics of this universe, see all the connections, and understand every moving part. Most problems that society is facing are much more complicated than the question whether there is a glass on the table or there isn’t.
Remember the ancient parable about the blind men trying to describe an elephant? In this story, the first man felt the elephant’s side, the second one touched its ear, the third one grabbed the tail, and the fourth one hugged a leg. Then the men started arguing with each other about what the elephant really looked like. The debate soon turned into a shouting contest: “This beast looks like a wall!” – “No, it looks like a rope!” – “It is a column!” – “No, it is a giant fan!” Ironically, none of the men in the story were wrong, and none of them were entirely right. All of their very different ideas had one thing in common: being incomplete.
Think about any social issue that is bothering you, something you are very certain and emotional about. You probably have a list of arguments prepared to use against anybody who dares to tell you that the way you see the situation is all wrong. But would you be willing to entertain the idea that your knowledge is not one hundred percent complete?
It is impossible for any individual to know everything about an issue that has many aspects, is influenced by numerous factors, and involves a significant number of people. It is ok not to know everything – nobody does – and it’s great when this realization makes us curious about perspectives that are different from our own. This requires noticing how our emotional reactions prevent us from considering other points of view or wondering about their origins with empathy. When empathy and curiosity are involved, we might be able to stop arguing which solution is better – mine (A) or yours (B) – and discover that there is an option C that neither of us has imagined yet because we have been so busy shouting at each other. To entertain the possibility that there is an option C even for the most controversial issues you could imagine, you need to adopt a radically new mindset. Would you be willing to give it a try?
Consider that I am not right or wrong, and that you are not right or wrong – but our perspectives are incomplete without each other. You and I, and the other people out there, are like pieces of a giant puzzle that, when put together, can reveal all the truths you have ever wanted to know and all the solutions you have been seeking. The question is, whether we would be collectively able to overcome our “blind men and the elephant” stage; whether we would be willing to set aside our pride and listen to each other with humility, before it is too late.