We just don’t know how to disagree anymore. If you don’t believe me, just scroll through the comments on almost any semi-controversial online article, Facebook post, or tweet. The Internet, and Twitter in particular illustrates how we in the “developed” world have developed a superhuman capacity for offending and becoming overly offended. Rather than engaging in meaningful discourse, we seem to prefer insulting each other’s intelligence and morality. It certainly challenges the Darwinian model of evolution: is it really possible that the apex of our evolution is a place where human beings have rendered ourselves incapable of getting along with each other?
What originally got me started on this topic was hearing about a study about allergies. Yes, I know it sounds far-fetched, but bear with me for a minute. Basically the study suggested that if mice and humans were exposed to farm dust (which has a variety of bacteria and fungi in it) at an early age, there was a much lower chance that they would develop allergies as an adult. It is evidence of the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that being exposed to foreign substances can strengthen the immune system and that the more we try to create germ-free environments, the weaker our immune systems will become, even causing our immune systems to attack harmless substances (like food) via allergic reactions.
But what does that have to do with disagreement? Well, the connection occurred to me as I thought about how I want to raise my kids. If being sheltered from every possible biological danger could actually make them weaker and more vulnerable, could the same be said intellectually, relationally and emotionally? You see, it’s easy to surround ourselves only with people who think just like us. The problem is that coming up against disagreement actually forces us to think, to solidify why we think the way we do, and to change our thinking when we realize we may be wrong about something. When we avoid people who disagree with us, we often end up creating straw men to destroy at the altar of the mindless god of the Internet, who is not appeased by our sacrifice, but remains ever thirsty for pettiness and ignorance of others.
I believe that it is a lack of exposure to ideological “foreign substances” that manifests itself in severe “allergic” reactions in which mobs of college students threaten or even commit violence when they disagree with someone else’s words. The world is full of conflict and difference of opinion, and I have to wonder what the future will hold if the next generation learns that conflict resolution means never listening or reconsidering and always demonizing or hurling insults at the people you disagree with. And this isn’t a problem for only liberals or only conservatives. The word “polarized” gets thrown around a lot to describe the political climate in the Trump era but it’s true nonetheless.
Of course we don’t have to pretend that we always agree with one another because we’re not doing anyone any favors by sheltering them from disagreement. However, listening and being civil when we do disagree would be a start. The person thinks it’s just liberals or just conservatives who are the problem is actually participating in a deepening of the divide in our country. Listening to someone explain what they believe and why they believe it rather than assuming we know their motivation and rationale humanizes them (which may honestly be the reason we avoid doing it sometimes).
In short, this is my plea for civil, sane, vigorous discussion. Are you with me?