How to stop talking past each other

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It can often feel as though we are living in a world in which shared truths are becoming impossible — the result, in large part, of social media algorithms that funnel us into bubbles and echo chambers that leave us all hopelessly divided and isolated from one another. 

Add to that landscape the emergence of powerful generative artificial intelligence, as well as the fertile ground that the internet provides for the proliferation of mis- and disinformation, and it can sometimes seem as if we are moving towards a situation in which we no longer possess any kind of shared sense of reality at all. 

It is a frightening prospect. And we appear to already be some of the way there: take the 2020 US presidential election, which huge numbers of Americans still believe was “stolen”. A Monmouth poll last June found that only 21 per cent of Republicans (but 93 per cent of Democrats) believe Joe Biden won fairly.

We can see similar gulfs on all sorts of issues, from the effectiveness of masks and lockdowns in preventing the spread of coronavirus to America’s migrant crisis and the war in Gaza. We are talking, here, not just about divides in terms of what is morally wrong and right, but what is real and what is not.

In these disturbing times, many seem to believe that winning the argument requires denying that there is any validity to our opponents’ positions at all. One can see this kind of thinking all around us: in the media, politics, and in public discourse more broadly, and it is leading us into ever more entrenched and polarised positions.

Last week, after a US Department of Justice report, led by special counsel Robert Hur, called Biden an “elderly man” with “diminished faculties”, many poured cold water on the findings, and not just Biden’s own staff. The New York Times ran a news piece under the headline “Memory Loss Requires Careful Diagnosis, Scientists Say”, explaining that such a “diagnosis” would require “close medical assessment”. Likewise, NBC ran a piece based on interviews with neurologists, who suggested that “forgetting names doesn’t actually provide much insight into potential memory problems”.

Hur called Biden “elderly” and criticised his memory, but it is not as if he claimed the president had dementia — or even said his memory problems made him unable to govern — so speaking of his findings as a “diagnosis” is something of a stretch. This is the kind of thing that makes people believe journalists cannot be trusted to provide non-partisan news coverage, and which has driven trust in the media to record lows.

The problem, though, is that not everyone believes that is what those of us with a platform — in the media but also politicians, academics and other public figures — should be providing. After writing a piece in the week before the 2020 election in which I argued that some parts of the media — “fact-checkers” in particular — were being dishonest in their reporting on Biden’s cognitive abilities even back then, a contact in the US told me he’d been scolded by a friend for sharing the piece on social media because, as he put it, “the stakes are too high”.

His friend was right about one thing. The stakes are too high to continue in this splintered way. A 2022 poll found that more than two in five Americans believed a civil war was at least somewhat likely in the next decade, thanks to political divisions. And a report by the Eurasia Group in January said the upcoming US presidential election represents the biggest political risk to the world in 2024. “The United States is already the world’s most divided and dysfunctional advanced industrial democracy,” analysts wrote. “The 2024 election will exacerbate this problem no matter who wins.”

In the spirit of my argument in this column, I should concede that things do get trickier when we are dealing with a deliberate lie that has been concocted and spread as a political weapon, and is now believed by a large number of people, such as the “stealing” of the 2020 election. We don’t want to legitimise disinformation. But even in these circumstances, it is important to find things to agree on. No, the election was not stolen, but yes, there were a tiny number of instances of voter fraud (just shy of 475 possible instances, according to an APreport).

If we can show we have taken all of the facts — no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient they are — into consideration, not only does it make our arguments more persuasive; it also allows us to get closer to the truth (which we often have less of a grip on than we might like to admit). And doing so makes disagreement less toxic and more productive. In my experience, when you give someone an inch, they often end up giving you an inch, too.

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