The case for political empathy

Public debates have been a staple of Western democracies. British parliamentary tradition is built on ensuring a pre-vote debate takes place, and historical attempts to curb that for some matters have been met with discontent among MPs. The founding years of the United States of America have been spent on discussions on how to reconcile competing interests of colonists who have just got rid of British rule, giving rise to a country built on a (recently very often unsteady) compromise. Debates should foster that compromise, sway opinions, and lead to greater understanding of the diversity of viewpoints that make up our political spectrum.

Yet with the ever-expanding Internet and mass communication the wider the debate has been the more polarised our societies have become. Moreover, the idea of a fact-driven public discussion is evaporating, with fact-checkers being necessary to verify whether evidence used to support one’s view has a modicum of truth, let alone is accurate. Then, surely enough afterwards the fact checkers come under fire themselves. After all one can ask who checks the fact checkers?

Complexities, and the sheer scale of issues have increased, our actions have impacts that go beyond our borders, or our lifetime. While the quantity of participants is increasing, we find there is a diminishing amount of trust in scientific, journalistic or moral authorities that would help guide a conversation - and that is assuming we could all come to some agreement on who such authorities would be! This inability to rely on any mutually-recognised authority is made worse by growing suspicions that those outside of our political group are harbouring ill-intentions.

Without trust public debate is becoming ineffective, or even counterproductive. The best of arguments can fall flat shortly after delivery due to lack of belief in the speakers’ credibility, and even worse - a good idea spoken by one, mistakenly or not, seen as an untrustworthy speaker corrupts the idea itself in the minds of the audience.

Emotions and facts are deeply coupled together in any discussion - even the most factual of us would take the best suggestions from a notorious scam artist with a pinch of salt, expecting there is some scam behind them that we cannot yet see - and as the actors in our politics and society become more divisive, so will any of their ideas. The marketplace of ideas has failed.

The myth of a rational debate

We all acknowledge that failure, even if only via our actions: tuning into any election debate is hardly ever done with the expectation that we will see one of the candidates have a revelation how wrong their viewpoint has been thanks to the weight of rational arguments thrown at them. Their position is unchangeable and we do not expect any movement to happen between the start and finish.

We then know that the speakers cannot be simultaneously correct given their positions are contradictory. In the resulting stalemate, the only move is to defend one’s view, while lobbying accusations that the other side is wrong. However, rationally speaking, all of the participants should be aware that they cannot be correct all the time, in all situations, and about everything. In other words, they approach the debate irrationally - given that all speakers adopt the same approach, and equally back it with data, from the outside perspective the only conclusion is that at the very least all bar one person are incorrect - in spite of their extreme confidence. One would imagine that a rational, well-interested debater would be aware of that possibility and self-aware enough to see how they are perceived.

In fact, it would be insane, damaging and a political suicide for any of the participants to conclude that they were, indeed, wrong or even accept that as a distant possibility. The expectation that weighs on all participants is to go one step above being open to being criticised - it is to be seen as infallible. It is not only about asserting their own authority, more importantly it infuses their audiences’ views with the same feelings of power or righteousness. To stray away from that is to stray away from your audience - the participants are not there in the capacity of showcasing their personal opinions, but as an accumulation of views and feelings of their target electorate. To admit to being wrong is not as much an admission of personal fault, but it is a break from your audience’s emotions.

This partisan audience is there to see their representative throw their punches, to hear their opinions crushing those of their opponents. Few of us play the devil’s advocate and try to learn, in good faith, the other side’s view, meaning the more divisive an issue the more likely we are to take a position in one trench or the other. What that leaves us with is a spectacle of watching someone chuck a pile of arguments that fit well with our experiences, observations, projections and resonate within our own bubble. Any reasoning that proves us wrong is then easily dismissable - if it does not fit in our experiences or we have not seen any evidence in our lives to confirm it, then we cannot relate to it. Furthermore, the more extreme the issue at hand the more it can be simplified by good-vs-evil rhetoric.

If arguments often are so useless, what does that leave us with? Some resign themselves to the view that there is just no convincing your opponent. In the context of the British Brexit vote, both sides have taken the position “Wait, and you will see we are right”, a tactic that can last indefinitely, and the longer it drags out the more events outside of the British government’s control can be blamed or used as an explanation of Brexit’s failures or successes. On the other side of the pond, America is struggling to balance itself in a split between conservatives and progressives, convinced that if only one side musters enough support to wrestle control of both houses they can reshape the country. A political ping pong follows, and tensions rise as each side attempts to establish some form of longer-lasting control.

Major changes without significant public support always risk being reversed soon after, making them pointless to begin with. Social consensus, and therefore foundations for lasting change, can only be established by co-opting all significant groups of our societies and their allies, making that consensus part of a moral fabric for decades to come. Any future attempt to reverse the policy will involve the necessity to build strong, resilient and bipartisan support. This effort alone should either deter politicians from attempting a reversal of policy, or, when attempted, ensure it is expensive to overhaul the status quo - cost being lost votes, time or resources to campaign for that change. Which means that either convincing your opponents, or rather - building a compromise that is enmeshed with social values, emotions and culture -  is the key to ensuring reforms stick. That puts us at the start of the dilemma - how do we do it if facts do not matter?

One idea would be to stick with the grind that is fact-checking, fighting an uphill battle to constantly correct our opponents, while bemoaning their stubbornness to listen to scientific evidence, or evidence in general. That a debate is becoming a grind, however, should be a hint that we are doing something wrong to begin with; the gap between effort put in and outcome ought to push us towards looking for different solutions.

Then so much effort is put on defeating specific political figures, as seen during Donald Trump’s presidency, as if the good fortune of a nation depended on defeating evil bogeymen who enthral its citizens. There is no denying politicians, companies and even shadow organisations along the lines of Cambridge Analytica are trying to influence political processes and elections. However, if one concludes those hold a disproportionate amount of power to a point of being undefeatable, then it signifies the democratic process and debates are dead. Superseded by a battlefield of algorithms, funds, focus groups and lack of free will among the participants of the process.

Political Empathy

If the above were true, any further argumentation is pointless since none outside of those groups hold significant power. However a separate interpretation is more appropriate: the bogeymen and politicians so much focus is placed on are popular by the power of embodying the views, thoughts and taboos of the electorate. They are more enslaved to the voters than the voters are enslaved to them, which leaves a glimmer of hope: we do not need to change or attack our politicians, we can instead forge better relationships, compromises and increase our understanding of those whose feelings our leaders try to channel. The same way politics can manipulate us, we can manipulate politics.

A method to achieving this is political empathy, understood as the ability to take on board the assumptions, feelings and background of those we disagree with in a bid to gain an understanding of how they reached their conclusions. It does not mean we have to concur with them, especially since some ideas might be plain repulsive, however it does require us to become something akin to an emotional devil’s advocate for those we disagree with.

Rather than placing primary focus on facts, instead we try to find out how they grew up, what environment shaped them, what societal and cultural pressures are put on them, how afraid or anxious they are in their life and all of that affects their views. It is about employing compassion when compassion does not come naturally, and using it to learn more about the boundaries of our own bubble, hopefully pushing our limits a bit further out and inviting other people into our space.

The above paragraph should come with the caveat that as far as our daily life is concerned, it is not our implicit responsibility to hold and take other people’s feelings onto ourselves. However, those who want to enact change or engage in a debate across divides cannot ignore empathy as a tool crucial to achieving that - the planet is facing existential issues, from climate change, through loss of biodiversity and pandemics to maintaining nuclear proliferation and staving off autocracies. The tighter we live together, the more we influence each other and the less we can simply ignore others: the times of English puritans leaving for a newfoundland to avoid persecution are long gone.

Furthermore, easily accessible and quick travel has narrowed down the barriers and made people living on different continents a mere half a day flight away. Even if one were to not leave their house, the Internet has made it so that views of those we disagree with or abhor are able to make their way into our homes. Since even our homes are not impervious to arguments that might provoke us, it means we need to find a way to make those disagreements more solvable and productive. This can ensure our societies can foster happiness, guarantee security and be truly representative of the diversity of views.

What does that mean in practice? We can start by tackling examples of groups that are vilified one way or another, and see if we can gain any extra understanding as to where their conclusions come from - and how assumptions wildly different from ours can make them correct in their reasoning.

“Correct” in this context does not necessarily mean factual, scientific correctness. It means being right once their reasoning system is understood, or correct given one’s history: should a person experience violence in one country, it is not incorrect for them to expect it after moving to a new place and react with fear or distrust. It might be not based on facts (e.g. their new home lacks any of the signs of persecution they had endured, and there is no evidence to suggest any violence is likely), however it is not unreasonable to see how being systemically subjected to violence can make one’s reasoning assume any place is unsafe.

A prominent example in most recent history are anti-vaccination groups. Those have gained exceptional notoriety during the COVID pandemic, naturally so considering the need for high vaccination rates to stem the tide of infections. Those movements were often pictured as insane, gullible, manipulated and willingly endangering society, sometimes shown as just plain evil or stupid.

While it is always easy to simplify and subsequently discard an issue, any such simplification seems too convenient - reduction to single dimensional descriptors such as stupid-smart, good-evil or their derivatives requires at the very least some questioning. Extraordinary reductionism requires extraordinary evidence.

How can we ourselves attempt to find a path that can lead to the same or a similar conclusion? First of all, the fear of “Big Pharma” is not misplaced: the US pharmaceutical market has been manipulating doctors to exploit the patient-doctor trust for profit, and has been spending billions of dollars to advertise and push drugs onto patients - a process of commodification of healthcare, making the pharmaceutical industry in the United States a business like any other. However, as the line dividing a market-like relationship from a doctor-patient one becomes blurred, people will naturally start asking whose interests healthcare professionals have in mind in the first place. Add in the combination of different treatment received in the healthcare system depending on one’s race, gender or class and you will soon see that trusting one’s doctor can be a lottery.

In the UK the race argument was the decisive one for black communities to avoid vaccinations. Having experienced institutionalised racism, not to mention that colonial history of Western countries has not imbued many with a sense of trustworthiness towards primarily White governments, black British population is understandably so cautious about anything the political leaders might recommend them to do. Furthermore, forced vaccine mandates for NHS workers, well-intentioned as they might have been, provided more proof of how well placed the mistrust is. After all, if you do not trust your own government, will you trust them more if they have to exercise force to enact a policy?

On top of that, education about science and its popular perception might have largely contributed to diminishing confidence in the scientific method. Popular science headlines have been popping up in social media feeds, proclaiming marshmallow tests at a young age being able to predict our future success, ignoring any scientific nuance there might be. Similarly, “Trust the science” was with us during the COVID-19 pandemic. The very same science we are supposed to trust is also in the middle of a replication crisis, with multiple well-cited studies failing to be proven correct, and for the most part accessible to an average reader only in the form of aforementioned pop science articles. Even a determined reader will soon face walls, specifically paywalls, when attempting to go straight to the source - further reinforcing the perception of elitism of the scientific community, even if that elitism is not necessarily there.

I am far from standing against academia - quite the contrary, I defended Imperial research at the start of the COVID pandemic in a separate piece - the details of what science is are elusive to the public at large, and the inner workings of the scientific corps are vague to most. What remains is blind trust, one built on decades of proof that “it just works”, but blind trust eventually leads to disappointment. Proven wrong once, what else are they lying about? Furthermore, not knowing the specifics means it is easy for malicious third parties to fill in the blanks with misinformation. Taken to the extreme it is not difficult to see people spiralling into denialism of all kinds: entertaining flat-earth theories, or even believing a joke that Finland does not exist. Once trust in shared foundations of our reality are kicked out, we can start taking on differing assumptions and reach vastly contradictory conclusions.

While for some we can claim concrete reasons for their opposition to what we consider to be a rational policy or choice, there are still those whose reasons are less so concrete: it could range from pure pettiness, a mix of various experiences, an assortment of fears, desire to be right, and many other reasons that one could classify either as a fault of character or a combination of events, assumptions and reasons that cannot be clearly defined. Those could be even seen as reasons that require challenging each singular opponents’ mindset - almost therapeutic in nature. For instance, it is not hard to see how someone could be seen as overly defensive, even unwarrantedly paranoid, due to a combination of beliefs, past events, and trauma, which then manifests itself in the very political belief we are trying to change.

In the end all of those factors cause mutual trust to be undermined, and then so is the ability to give thought to any arguments being put forward, or believe anything we have not seen or heard from a trusted source. Even our perception of what makes trustworthy sources has become more and more partisan. The debate shifts from being an opportunity for growth and learning, instead into the realm of finding ulterior motives for what the interlocutor is saying.

With so much mistrust and desire to prove, above all, the other side is crooked, factual debate becomes meaningless, even counter-productive, since any facts - no matter how correct - will be assumed to have come from a poisoned well, and will be remembered as tainted. Escalation from here claims more victims - empathy, social cohesion evaporate and with them openness to dialogue, instead giving way to profiting from the discord, self-interest and, in some cases, heavy-handed regulation that fills in the gap.

All of the above might seem more fitting for a therapeutic intervention, if it were not for the fact that it can wreak havoc on our politics: the fear of a nation can be purposefully exacerbated to enlist support for a war (as evidenced by American support for war in Iraq, or more recently Russian population’s support for a war against a “nazi regime in Kyiv”), or to stoke fears that stop dialogue between those with different, even if reconcilable, views. We cannot afford to detach the collective and individual psychological background of a nation from our politics, especially since that emotions and rationality go hand in hand: if I have access to information that I believe proves my loved ones are in danger and such information is plausible, I will be afraid, and I will take what seems like rational steps (given the severity of the threat) to quell that fear. That might result in unjust persecution, dangerous legislation or a moral panic.

Moreover, stepping down from one’s position is made more difficult by associating any change of opinions with accepting damning judgments. Mask mandates in public debate were often tied with the judgement that those refusing them must be selfish, uncaring and/or stupid. Even if we were to have absolute knowledge that this judgement is entirely correct (as in - opponents of mask mandates are, in their entirety, selfish and stupid), by bundling it together with the main point any opponents are forced to combine changing their opinion with agreeing with that judgement. It is not hard to see how the two parts can be separated, and how convincing an opponent does not require them to accept the latter. Victory ought not to be about humiliation, but about meeting halfway to forge a joint decision.

Being right & being empathetic

The implication from above is that even when occupying a perfectly correct position, and being perfectly accurate in our judgement of our opponents, making that judgement public only adds to the difficulties in enacting political change and building consensus thanks to bundling opinions with judgments. Instead, it would work better to approach any debate with an opponent with a listening attitude first, understand their emotions (and collective emotions of the groups they are part of), and withhold our own judgement if it is not constructive to success.

The debates we see on TV are so divisive because they are akin to a collision between two completely different mental worlds of experiences, assumptions, flaws and priorities, combined with a strong judgement (or, in extreme cases, denunciation) of the other side. Although both worlds can have the same roots, on the outside they appear fundamentally different, and the debate resembles a struggle of one world trying to dominate the other.

Rather than colliding the two together, we can start by exploring the emotional and historical roots of where our opponents’ arguments come from, and be open to a different kind of a discussion that does not require us to make an attempt to dominate the other side. Simply throwing our own opinions at our opponents runs the risk of them hearing something completely different than we intended, especially now that the polarisation of views often means what we say is not heard for what was said, but for how it fits within the framework of dominating political discourse: be it right vs left, masks vs no masks etc. Instead, if we follow our opponents’ reasoning we can see where the paths fork, and what experiences pushed them along a different one. It is at those crossroads that led both sides to different conclusions where we can understand why we took separate paths. At best we both learn from it, at worst it gives us the ability to add extra depth to our understanding of the issue.

This genuine openness to a dialogue and looking past differences is crucial even should we occupy a perfectly truthful position. Especially when the differences might seem insurmountable: case-in-point has been the rise of the infamous incel culture, and its in-built misogyny. Seemingly at the time of progress in the sphere of feminist causes as well as broadening acceptance of sexual minorities, a reactionary movement popped up that seeks to revert those changes - and at its most extreme seeks to limit women’s rights to the minimum. Self-identified incels have even committed mass murders in the name of the ideology. Incel subculture has been ridiculed, and rightfully so rebuked and condemned.

One problem has been that incels are embedded into the social fabric and dispersed, they are not a group that can be easily identified and pointed out - they are our neighbours, friends and often part of our families, whether we know it or not. The Internet has given them a chance to unite and come together in virtual communities in a way that had not been possible until the advent of mass-communication technologies of the XXI century. While governments have been more focused on assessing them as a terrorist threat, steps from here are even more complicated - apart from those who are violent, what should be done about those who are not? They cannot be directly implicated in the violence, but they are part of a community that breeds it. Other steps, such as mockery and rebuke, have not led to substantial improvement.

In this case being empathetic has two goals: one is to understand the processes and thoughts of specific people in the group, as well as approximation of those processes for the group as a whole (e.g. finding common themes, arguments). It removes the projections we might have or hear-say arguments we hold as those that the incel culture believes. It is about seeing the real people behind the movement, their emotions and thought patterns, rather than focusing on the ideas of the loudest proponents. The key is to reach a point where we can, in good faith, understand not necessarily “what” they are saying, but “why”. “Good faith” being crucial - similarly to how journalists need to often question parts of stories they are covering, so do we have to question whether we are not simplifying, speculating or extrapolating the thoughts of our opponents. When there is doubt, more depth should be assumed to exist and looked for.

Second goal is a product of the first one, is to protect those victimised by a movement itself by removing the social conditions that gave rise to it in the first place, often by extending a helping hand to the perpetrators. It might seem counterintuitive that we should extend our help not only to the victims, but to the oppressors. However, other tactics have not necessarily led to improvement: ridicule, changes in laws, or crack downs might keep the ideology in check, however they do not remove its roots. Those roots lie in societal conditions that led to them harbouring thoughts and emotions that aligned them with or made them predisposed to the group to begin with. Those conditions often make incels victims themselves, meaning that rebuke of the group as perpetrators needs to go hand-in-hand with work to help them out as victims of social deficiencies.

We can start by exploring those who identify as ex-incels and use their self-reflections to get a glimpse at people hiding behind the vitriol. While research is sparse (as authors of this paper admit that themselves), turning to anecdotal evidence and third party accounts might work. They show how easily growing insecurities, lack of emotional intimacy, limited support and emphasis on resilience can push even the reasonable among us towards an incel mindset. While women are more and more enabled to escape the cultural expectations of the past, men are still stuck in them. Depending on one’s class, background, race or even country of birth little to no progress might have been made to legitimise emotional intimacy among men, provide alternatives to old mindsets or reduce the amount of societal pressures and expectations they face.

It is also not surprising that women suffer as a result. Emotional intimacy between men is something that our culture does not encourage or foster. Instead, it is treated as belonging to the feminine domain - especially considering how often female archetypes are those of a carer or a mother. The sex incels demand is not necessarily purely about sex in itself. It might be a way to express desire for emotional closeness, intimate relationships, or as a way to acquire status from having a female partner compared. All expectations set by culture, ones that could be fulfilled if, in the eyes of incels, women were not purposefully denying them all of the above.

Incel movement is thus a reaction to adverse social conditions, upbringing and societal changes that have left a lot of men behind mixed with the crisis of self-expression and emotional intimacy among men.

“Cis white male” might be seen as the most privileged of identities, however men are divided themselves by class, family situation, access to opportunities, emotional involvement of their parents or guardians, abuse experienced and even the amount of attention that is paid to their issues in today’s economic and social climate. At the same time they do possess a significant amount of power in other areas, even if they do not realise it. Institutional racism and sexism in some institutions helps, often already privileged because of class, men achieve certain career paths not available to women, or even get away with rape and sexual assault. While this power might let incels, and men in general, avoid consequences for their actions, at the same time other areas of culture hold them prisoner and stop them from overcoming life’s issues - be it lack of emotional intimacy, suppressed self-expression, bullying in schools or others.

The victimhood of incels lies in the way their expectations cannot be fulfilled in the new, developing culture, yet the old culture left them with no tools to address that uncertainty, lack of understanding of the new and perceived emasculation. Their only tools are the few emotions men are permitted, anger being one. Even rationality, often supposed to be a traditionally masculine trait, gets subjugated in the service of the incel cause by creating pseudo-intellectual arguments in support of incel views. Those tools of the world gone by are then utilised as weapons to perpetuate violence. However, despite the perceived privilege and societal power men hold as a group, the same power comes with an emotional prison that becomes more and more evident with time.

We can pile in extra complexities: economic turmoil and pressures that leave more and more men feeling like they cannot fulfil their societal roles of caregivers - roles that became outdated shortly after being instilled in them. But it is this minimal level of political empathy, the effort of stopping and not instantly discarding a group or simply resorting to being satisfied with a quick act of condemnation, that helps us understand the forces that shape those we might abhor.

It would be easy to deny them help or recognition of their issues by citing their status as perpetrators of violence or hatred. If that were to stand, however, were incels only to be deserving of help, respect or empathy if they were limited to being victims of the system?

If the answer is no then it follows that we have to think of them similarly as other victims that we do extend help and compassion to, requiring us to at the very least to look deeper to understand their arguments - at times it is a case of peeling away the resultant hatred to see what caused it. The aggression that we see is unacceptable, however there might be valid reasons that provoked this aggression. As listeners and agents who, hopefully, are looking to establish change, we should be capable of digging deeper and uncovering those reasons.

Should the answer be yes, we can restate another question: If extending help to incels leads to making women’s lives safer or easier by removing the threat and alleviating social tensions, then it is another valid way of solving the problem. This would be a pure utilitarian logic, where our empathy is driven solely by the end goal of a greater good.

A real risk exists that, if we do not show ourselves as understanding and empathetic, someone else will. In case of the incel movement, as well as a wider reactionary, anti-feminist movement, its members will turn towards people who are more sympathetic to their cause. Those have involved figures such as Jordan Peterson, or, more recently, Andrew Tate. Anti-maskers are often influenced by figures that are of dubious moral standing. Showing willingness ourselves to listen and to understand is a counter to those personalities.

All of the above is obviously not solely limited to incels, the same approach applies to other issues: understanding those who support politicians that are deemed racists, bigoted or repulsive requires the same steps. If those supporters say “Trump understands me”, the response to that should be a question “Why do they not think we understand them?”. As discussed above, the answer might very well be that we indeed have not made enough effort to gain that understanding!

Finally, there is the consequence that for movements born out of social shortcomings, removing those is good enough only for preventing current children from becoming broken adults, those already harmed will remain. It is not possible to erase one’s past, or overwrite the forces that moulded us into who we are.

As a consequence, regardless of our effort to change, uplift or fix a societal injustice, some will forever be harmed and changed by it: years of their childhood or early adulthood have already been marked by negative patterns, those cannot simply be replaced with future, better years. Trust will not rebuild itself instantly, trauma will not evaporate. Each year of our life and our personal or shared histories are non-fungible, exist within its own developmental context and are built on top of foundations of our past.

Those societal shortcomings then do not entirely disappear: just like past insecurities, anger issues, addictions or fears they come back to haunt us in new forms. Silver lining being that those new forms might be easier to deal with and less damaging. Which is why dialogue and political empathy is needed as a value embedded in our society’s moral fabric, constantly utilised and at work to soften any damage.

Moving past us-vs-them

There is another tendency that can be picked up from the above examples: the us-vs-them mentality, where groups are painted with the same brush. When groups become defined with homogenous traits - e.g. all anti-vaxxers are stupid, all incels hate women, all liberals believe Trump supporters are evil - it is easier to mobilise support against them, and serves a purpose akin to putting a hostile uniform on your opponent to help single them out as the enemy.

On the other hand, I would expect most to say they are open minded, receptive to arguments and able to change their minds given the right reasons. Reducing our opponents to strawmen, however, also has the side effect that it provides a way to avoid having to listen to their arguments, while at the same time claiming we would be receptive to them - had they come from “the right” group.

While it might be true that our opponents are wrong about most things, it would be improbable that there does not exist at least a small part of the argument they are right about. Those small parts are often the grounding for their opinion, the assumptions that led to a widely different conclusion, be it some experience or a feeling that they hold. This means there exists something we could learn and potentially a piece of information that could serve as a catalyst to changing our minds. In those cases us-vs-them is a failure of good will to find common ground or understanding, an opt out from making the effort to step down from a feeling of moral superiority to be more level with our opponents.

It is often easier to avoid troubling oneself with trying to dig deeper, as once a group has been blanket-branded a specific term one does not have to look much further - all individuals in it are stripped of complexities, diversity of thought or motivations, instead treated as a singular hive mind. More often than not that hive mind is overall of negative impact, mindless or manipulated by a malicious force.

Yet ideologies we dislike can be built both on positive emotions as much as negative ones: e.g. desire to help each other in the face of what is perceived as a dangerous government - some of anti vaxxers communities are full of positive, even if misguided, support. In all those cases there is more to it than what many simple labels such as “sexism”, “racism”, “stupidity” provide, and those labels are to the contrary how members of that group feel about what they are doing. This can only lead to further entrenching ourselves in opposite camps than helping in bridging the gap.

To bring back the incels example, I might find it hard to identify with hate or misogyny of a group, but having grown up surrounded by dangerous male templates I can see how difficult it is to navigate a world that is often so self-contradictory until those templates are rejected - often at the cost of isolating oneself from their local culture. I might have taken the same path had I made different choices or buckled to pressures exerted on me. This little foothold means I see a glimmer of hope as it shows there are less differences between me-and-them than I had realised, as well as adds complexity that a simple label of “women haters” does not grant. It’s hard to see the debate as us-vs-them considering I could have easily been part of them - and it humanises the opponents as having similar thought patterns, strengths, weaknesses and capacity to understand as I do.

Discomfort that comes with listening

So far I have mentioned mostly speaking to members of groups with the expectation that both sides are entrenched in an emotional and/or rational viewpoint, but hold no other objectives than correctness of their own opinion. Of course it would be naive to not see that political leaders for the most part try to influence, exploit and radicalise those viewpoints, without holding those views themselves. Those are the cases when a debate is done with malicious intent in mind - the interlocutor might not hold or believe the views they support, since it is in their interest to hold a sway over their audience.

In situations like this it matters even more that that as part of civil society, on a peer-to-peer level, are able to hold discussions with political empathy in mind: not only does it circumvent political interests of our leaders, but the more consensus-driven and less open to polarisation our society is, the less there is to gain by radicalising one’s base. It becomes a moral value and a tool enmeshed within how we interact. Down the line it also decentralises public debate, relying less on a few political figures going head-to-head and defining the debate. It helps establish trust in our neighbours and community, in spite of the world of politics.

For this to be achieved, more needs to be done than simply speaking. As mentioned at the start of this piece, hardly anyone expects a change of opinion to happen during a presidential debate - or even listens to opposing views in good faith.

Listening with an open mind, in good faith and the acceptance being made uncomfortable by opposing views is exactly what needs to happen more. And more importantly - it needs to happen both ways. It is not enough that we simply mould our opponents to accept our views, or win a debate. Our views need to change to accommodate the reality of the situation, understand the emotional position of our opponents, to accept new facts and experiences that we had not been aware of. We have to deal with the feeling of discomfort as we realise there is something that we have missed, some emotional truth we failed to understand or a complexity that derails our entire agenda. How open minded can we really claim to be if we cut ourselves off from trying to understand the reasons for views that make us uncomfortable?

By talking to groups we are at odds with we can start off by acknowledging their feelings, the assumptions they come to the discussion with and make an effort to understand their experiences that shaped their arguments. It is after listening that we can evaluate the correctness of our opinion first. The caveat is, we do not need to necessarily modify our opinion on the issue (although we should if we are proven wrong!), at the same time we can take in all the new information to modify how we feel about our opponents, change our view of the amount of complexities involved or catch any projections we have built up.

The goal is to avoid approaching the debate primarily with the intent to change other minds, an expectation that our opponent will fully submit to our arguments. Instead we try to establish a ground truth of the other side’s position before we proceed to removing our own projections in favour of authentically understanding the reality of our opponents. We can work to expand our thinking, and catch our faults before anyone else does.

It might be the case that a group’s lack of trust is warranted in some way, or there is a level of injustice that has been done to them that we did not consider before. Then there are socio-economic, political and cultural issues we might have been blind to. Potentially our view of them as a singular identity is wrong - the person we are speaking to does not hold all of the opinions we had attributed to the group they are part of, or not even to the same intensity as we imagine they would. Questioning our assumptions is an exercise at bringing some sanity to a world, rather than escaping into the conclusion that we are the only ones sane or hold a deeper knowledge of a topic than those who disagree with us. We can move more towards seeing the perceived insanity to be more likely a symptom of lack of understanding.

In the work of convincing someone we also have to keep in mind that, again, some things cannot be undone: trust can be brought back, minds can be healed, but it will not wipe the history clean. Some differences will remain, our opponents are equally autonomous agents as we are and though a better consensus might be reached, it would be foolish and possessive to expect them to simply adopt our views uncritically, or not take some arguments on board in unexpected directions to create a brand new viewpoint.

That can spark another debate, one in which they might actually be more correct than we are, a situation that we should be ready for: the diversity of experiences and lives means that we can never be sure we really have all the facts, and at times it is not even a question of right and wrong. It is a question of whether our models of the world are incorporating all information, and whether they need adjustment before we even reassess our conclusions.

Putting it all back together

Being open to our own change of opinion is crucial before we expect others to change theirs. It is not only a step towards building our own emotional competence, but it shows good-will on our part. Why would anyone trust us if our messaging is purely assertive and exists with the sole idea of changing how our opponent thinks? It is not even a question of whether we are wrong or right, but a question of whether we can possess all the information to begin with - we grow up differently, read different books, consume different media, go to different jobs, and all of those paint our understanding of the world. It does not mean that the truth of the world is always eluding us, but it does mean that a debate with someone different from us helps us add extra layers and detail to our picture of the world. At least as long as we are willing to be made uncomfortable about our ignorance.

Furthermore, we might have been right once, however the ever-changing nature of the world could have invalidated our views. At times we do not even have access to information about an issue compared to those affected by it due to the speed at which the changes affect them. For instance, exploitation of minorities is something that is instantly known and felt by those affected, but can take even years to be uncovered or be more widely known - catching everyone unaware as to how it has slipped under the radar for so long. If we are not open to listening and re-evaluating our views, then it follows we are also not open to the possibility of new information. We have to be listeners first, speakers later.

Managing and maintaining trust despite the differences means policies need to be enacted with full knowledge and acceptance of societal consequences. Forced vaccine mandates were part of the debate in some countries, and it is extremely likely they would be the most effective way of stemming the spread of pandemic. However, the existence, feelings and scope of groups mistrustful of vaccinations need to be taken into account. In the short term such policies can save lives, but there is the question of how much they erode trust in the social contract we are all part of, and how much they destabilise consensus. It does not necessarily mean we should flat out abandon a beneficial policy, only that it needs to be undertaken with full knowledge and acceptance of damage that it might do, as well as communicated appropriately to those whose trust we risk losing. In other words, it is not necessarily our view on vaccination that needs to change, but we require to have respect for those opposed to it, and an opinion on how to mitigate loss of their trust.

The same approach applies outside of our own society. Understanding international politics requires the same journey into another country’s collective psyche. After we are born we are shaped by stories our community tells us, our language’s media we consume, ethical frameworks and philosophical frameworks imposed on us, cultural pressures and even commercial influences that make us see specific lifestyles, choices or values as desirable. If we then apply and perceive other nations via the same prism we risk oversimplifying politics. There is a temptation to go for explanations based on our archetypes or values: overplaying the importance of money, missing significance that some societal aspects we ignored hold, or casting other nations or leaders in the role of villains we know from our stories.

In case of country-to-country relationships, gaining an understanding requires us to expose ourselves to a whole nation’s literature, philosophy, moral systems and the foundations laid over the course of thousands of years ago that gave rise to what they are today. Western countries have less trouble understanding each other thanks to sharing a Roman & Greek foundation (followed by centuries of interlocking history), however it is far more daunting to understand cultures distant to us, whose philosophy, stories and entire cultural output has developed in relative isolation from the West. With the rise of countries such as India or China, and a change of international order it follows that, to maintain peace and facilitate diplomacy, we need to understand in-depth those we are talking to.

It is from a position of curiosity, listening and genuine openness to discussion that we can build consensus and ensure the social (or international!) contract we are born into works for all. Whether we like it or not, society consists of all the groups we agree with, disagree with and abhor, yet reaching some form of agreement is how change can be achieved. Dialogue is needed to facilitate understanding and adjust our thinking. We can be better listeners, and even should we fail in being convincing, listening means we can spy new information from those we disagree with - thus helping in the next clash.