Donald Trump has won the 2016 USA Presidential Election.
So… that’s a thing now.
For a surprisingly large number of US citizens (seriously, only 25.5% of the country actually voted for him), not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the world, there is one question on our lips:
‘How the fuck did this happen?’
Get past the disbelief and the obvious answers (he won the most electoral college votes, etc) then what we’re all asking is actually a pretty different question: how could someone disagree with my opinion so dramatically?
How could so many functional human beings, faced with the overwhelming volume of evidence in front of them, after months and months of coverage and analysis, have come to the decision that the best person to lead the most powerful nation in the world, is an orange muppet with the self-control of a Labrador in a ball-pit?
You have to admit it’s a pretty good analogy for your average Trump speech.
It’s tempting when faced with this sort of situation to reach for the comfortable answers; that everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot, a bigot, woefully ignorant or a cultural fossil being dragged into the 21 century kicking and screaming. And while these description may be true on occasion, it’s worth remembering that your opponents likely think the same about you. And given how blind-sided virtually every non-Trump supporter was by this result, guess what? On this occasion at least they were kinda right – how out of touch must we have been that none of us saw this coming? That we thought it was impossible, ridiculous, right up until it happened?
It’s times like this that ethics can come in handy, not because it can help us ensure our own views are correct, but because it can help us understand those that disagree with us, even when that disagreement seems flat out self-destructive. So for your edification, here are the five reasons why people disagree with you.
Reason 1: Because you’re wrong.
Pretty straight forward, isn’t it? Despite your feelings on the matter, on this occasion your opinion is incorrect. It is false. It does not reflect the best evidence available at the time.
Your opinion, illustrated.
This may sound obvious, but how many of us actually check this when we run up against someone who disagrees with us? Listens to their arguments and honestly check whether they might have a point? How many of us have run into a Trump or Hanson supporter online and taken their position seriously, rather than immediately smashing out the sickest burn we could muster?
Of course this is not to say that you are wrong, but simply that in any given disagreement you could be and that we all need to accept that. If your first reaction to being disagreed with isn’t to immediately check if you position is actually correct, then guess what? You’re behaving exactly like Trump supporter.
Reason 2: Ignorance of the facts.
So you’ve run up against someone who disagrees with you, you’ve check yourself and made sure you are actually in the right. Congrats! But why is this person still disagreeing with you? Well one of the most likely reasons is pretty simple: they haven’t seen all the evidence that you have.
Ha! So they are ignorant after all! So much for having to worry about their opinions then, right? Well no. Slow your arse down mate, because what I’m going to tell you here is going to blow your intellectual mind: you’re ignorant as well. VERY ignorant. Know why? Because you’re not a god, that’s why. You lack omniscience and as such, are working with a very limited set of information at any given time. And until we all develop telepathy and can understand what everyone else is honestly thinking all the time, you, me and every human on the planet is going to be ignorant to some degree or another.
In the case of Trump, odds are good that his supporters hadn’t read through the details of his tax plan, and simply don’t know that even conservative analysts agree that it will effectively raise taxes on the middle class and cut taxes for the rich – ie. the exact opposite of what they think he will do.
So how do you deal with someone who disagrees with you based on pure ignorance? Well here’s a tip: scorn, mockery or condescension are not going to help. Reeling off a thousand factoids at them while wearing an expression that could rightly be described as ‘smug git’ is not going to win them over any more than it would win over you.
This woman doesn’t hate Muslims. She’s just scared and grasping at an idea that sounds good even though it won’t actually work. And howling her down did nothing to change her mind about that.
Nope, the remedy for pure ignorance is simple really: provide them with information. Respectfully and pitched for them to best understand the information. Y’know, basic human communication.
But sometimes that won’t work, and that’s likely because of reason number 3.
Reason 3: Misunderstanding of the facts.
This one is a little more tricky, because unlike pure ignorance this person has all the same information that you have, has read all of it, and somehow still disagrees with you.
So now we must be moving into the realms of stupidity, right? I mean how could someone honestly see all the evidence on Trump and not see him for the lying, cheating, vile sack that’ll throw his supporters under the bus first chance he gets? Well it’s possible they ‘re too stupid to understand what they’re reading, but the better bet is that they’re simply processing it differently.
That’s right, it’s my old favourites Rhetorical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases! You know, those well-established bugs in human thinking that can cause even the smartest of us to draw some truly wacky conclusions from the facts.
And every single one of us do these all the damn time.
Also, see the high res version of this infographic via this link. It’s truly awesome.
Practically all of these come into play in an election campaign, but the big one here is confirmation bias; the tendency for people to seek out information they agree with and ignore/disbelieve any information they don’t. Trump supports were rife with this. Show them that video I linked before about Trump’s tax plan and they’d either ignore it completely or call it biased and untrue because it presents evidence they don’t want to hear.
And before you start getting smug about it again, we all did the exact same thing. Most people opposed to Trump are still trying to figure out why people voted for him, and what’s notable about this question is that no one appears to be asking his supporters that question. Prior to the election did you seriously go and search for articles written in support of Trump? Did you listen to interviews of his supporters (that weren’t intended to mock them)? How about actually finding one of his supporters online and asking them some questions about their views?
Of course you bloody didn’t. Why? Because that would have been like stabbing your brain with red hot needles of pure stupid. Faced with opinions – passionate opinions no less – that were so at odds with your own isn’t just frustrating, it’s flat out distressing. As in it can cause you significant physical discomfort simply to read such opinions.
And so we tend to avoid those opinions, our opponents tend to avoid ours, and everybody falls back on the far more comforting idea that their opponents are just idiots who can’t handle the facts.
So how do you engage someone who is misinterpreting the facts? Well you can start by recognising that you have plenty of your own biases and that the truth you think is so stone-cold objective absolutely is not. Second, you need to figure out how your opponent has come to such a different conclusion and that – horror of horrors – means talking with them. Ask a lot of ‘why’ questions and mine down into the basis of their opinion. Remember, if they are working from the same set of facts as you, then you have plenty that you agree on; the trick is to figure out where your opinions started diverging and begin the discussion from there. Otherwise you’ll end up having two completely different debates.
Reason 4: Defense of ‘self’.
Ok so you’ve run up against someone who disagrees with you and you’ve run through the first 3 points on this list: you’ve checked you’re not incorrect, you’ve respectfully supplied facts to the ignorant, and you’ve mined down to the source of the disagreement for the informed, but still wrong.
And they’re still not agreeing with you. In fact they might actually be even more committed to their stupid opinion than they were before. What the hell is going on here?
Well matey, you just ran up against the single most powerful factor in human psychology; the need to defend your sense of self. Consider this: you personally have, both consciously and subconsciously, an idea of who you are, what you stand for, and the way that you generally behave. That self-image might not be completely accurate sometimes (hello Dunning-Kruger effect), but for you this is who and what you are. And if someone comes along who threatens that sense of self, perhaps by showing you that you don’t actually live up to your own ideals, or by attacking the validity of those ideals themselves, then you are not going to react well to this. In fact you will likely fight tooth and nail in defense of your ‘self’, with absolutely no regard for whether they other person actually has a point.
Oh but you’re above that, aren’t you? You are an enlightened, rational person who would react to such criticism calmly and reasonably, right? Bullshit. Every human being on this earth has things they care about; all I need do is identify and then threaten those things, and you will turn on me like the barely-evolved chimp we all are deep down.
If you’ve ever wondered what could possibly motivate a person to get involved in outright self-destructive activities like fighting in a war, this is it: it can be more bearable for us to literally put our lives in danger than to compromise our sense of who we are and what we stand for. And nothing threatens that sense of self worse than the idea that those ideals we stand for are actually wrong. Imagine the implications of that; not only do you have the shame of being so committed to what turns out to be a stupid set of ideas, this revelation means that everything you’ve done with your life up to this point might have been bad. You were a bad person. And everything you’ve achieved so far in life might actually be terrible and wrong.
This isn’t just bad, it’s outright catastrophic for a person’s psyche, and it only gets worse as you get older because that just means MORE things that you’ve been fucking up with your stupid, incorrect ideals. Big damn surprise then that when a Trump supports come up against solid evidence that they are wrong, especially from a source they believe, they react by slamming down the shutters and desperately diving right back into people that agree with them and will reassure them that no, they’re not the ones who are wrong! It’s just those evil liberals telling lies again. Don’t you worry about them, they’re just a bunch of corrupt, lying, godless, evil traitors who want to destroy this country and everything good about it.
And you know the really scary thing about this? You do it too. In fact people who dislike Trump are doing it right now; faced with the prospect that 25.5% of the country agree with him we’re immediately falling back on our comforting ideas, claiming that bigotry must be far more widespread in the USA than we though, arguing that it’s the Democrat’s fault for not fielding a better candidate, outright denying that this is happening and hoping for some sort of mythical court intervention or even a god-damn assassination plot – ANYTHING other than considering that Trump might have offered voters something they really do need and that the left has failed to provide them. Anything rather than admit that we might have been wrong, at least to some degree.
Managing this desperate need to defend oneself is a tricky to say the least, because facts alone ain’t gonna cut it. No, this is about doing one of the hardest things a person can do; showing respect and empathy for someone whose views you find utterly and completely disgusting. It means treating a person who chants ‘Lock her up!’ and jokes about ‘pussy grabbing’ as a human being who needs to be helped to change their viewpoint. In means catering for the needs of people you hate.
And speaking of hate…
Reason 5: Straight up malice
As many of you will no doubt be grumbling by now, sometimes people don’t need a reason to disagree with you. Sometimes they just hate your guts and want to oppose you out of pure spite or evil intent.
And I respond to this in the same way I respond to any claim of ‘evil’: it’s a lazy word for those who can’t (or won’t) understand the motivations of others. It doesn’t matter how vile or hateful your opponent is, there is a reason they hold those opinions and, for them at least, those opinions make sense. As comforting as it would be to label those we disagree with as evil idiots beyond redemption, pointless to engage with and incapable of changing their minds, the simple fact is that everyone, no matter how fanatical, holds their beliefs for a reason and those reasons provide us with leverage.
Provided you have done point 1 correctly and your opinion is actually correct, then the evidence is on your side. By identifying why your opponent disagrees with you, you discover how to use that evidence to change their mind. And by understanding the psychologcal/emotional needs of your opponent, you can ensure that you don’t scare the shit out of them and send them scurrying for the safety of confirmation bias in the process.
But why should we bloody well bother?
The process I’ve outlined here is intense, exhausting and potentially hugely traumatic since it involved closely engaging with ideas you likely hate with a passion. And worst of all, it demands that you put the needs of your opponents before your own. Why should you have to deal with all that for a group of hateful, ignorant idiots who don’t have the basic sense necessary to know when they’re fucking themselves and everyone else over?
Simple really: Because if we don’t, they’ll fuck themselves and everyone else over. And think they’re right to do so.
Contrary to what the internet likes to believe, the point of a debate is not to deliver the most devastating insult possible, or to make yourself look amazing to your peers. That crap might be fun, but it’s also guaranteed to just make things worse as both sides dig in harder and fight nastier. Nope, the purpose of a debate is to change your opponent’s position to reflect the truth.
And if you can’t or won’t understand the reasons why other disagree with you, let alone care about their feelings, then guess what?
That’s exactly how we ended up with Trump.