In-tolerance we trust

Us vs Them

Something has gone terribly wrong with media and the Internet: we’ve lost the ability to tolerate opinions that run contrary to our own.

These days, if you express a politically incorrect point of view (which sadly, is increasingly coming to mean not toeing the line on a progressive, “small-L” liberal political agenda), then the Internet sees it as its moral obligation to set you straight.

But I get where the hate is coming from. We’re forced on a daily basis to contend with fake news and dangerous, unscientific ideas, and that’s got us all riled up because it might harm us or that which we love – both people and things (like the planet we live on). But in our attempt to protect ourselves we’ve taken to passing instant judgement on things that we’re unfamiliar with. What’s worse is that we fail to appreciate the subtlety and nuance of a debate and defer to simple archetypes and tropes in order to cope with the sheer volume of crap being slung at us at high velocity via our social media feeds.

The Same Sex Marriage postal vote currently underway in Australia has pretty much become a worst-case example, where an issue has been reduced down to exactly two tribes: Yes and No. For what it’s worth, I’ve already cast my vote, but I won’t be drawn on which way I voted because in the spirit of this post I maintain that both sides have valid arguments – not that they are equal and opposite because I did eventually choose one over the other – but that neither side of the issue is completely wrong and without merit as some would have us believe. There are people on both sides who will claim that the issue is as simple as all that, but it’s precisely this kind of reductionist thinking that’s causing the problem I’m talking about.

The obvious danger is, of course, groupthink, when you defer responsibility for understanding the issue to the tribe you identify with, which inevitably boils down to “us” vs “them” (or “Yes” vs “No” in our case here). When you Like or Share a meme on Facebook that supports your point of view without comment, you’re pretty much certainly guilty of groupthink. On introspection, you may even find that you actually disagree with some of the things that your group thinks, but in order to belong you overlook them as minor or inconsequential.

It also leads to close-mindedness against arguments offered by the other side. Given the impossible task of discerning a valid argument from an invalid one, the reasonable course of action is of course to consider all of them invalid. But because we’re challenged to engage, we avoid doing so at the intellectual level and respond emotionally and viscerally instead.

But there is a high road: just shut the fuck up.

People who haven’t read this blog nor spent the time to get to know me, and only know me from my infrequent posts on social media, will probably be surprised to find that I lean conservative on a lot of socio-political issues. Even as an atheist, my sympathetic attitude towards religion finds me few friends on either side of the fence, and I’ve learned that it’s better to keep a low profile than to attempt to nut out one’s immature, partially-formed worldview in full view of the public. To be otherwise is to provide know-it-alls and holier-than-thous with an open invitation to a slagging match.

But more than that, we need to practice tolerance as a skill; the ability to suck it in and let something pass without comment. Don’t get me wrong, I see no small irony in my saying that and writing this post, which is the very picture of me not tolerating the bullshit that I’m seeing on Facebook and elsewhere. But in my own defense I have at least made an attempt to lay out some form of argument instead of trying to get my point across in less than 140 characters and/or a narky picture.

I won’t be unfriending or unfollowing anybody, or trying to convince anyone to vote the same way I did. I’m not going to label you as a monster who hates human rights, nor some fanatic who is out to destroy the innocence of children. I will tolerate your views, with the view that one day we might be able to discuss them from a mutual position of respect. There’s more to life, and presumably friendship, than where you put your mark on the survey form.

And if you disagree with me on this, I will gladly tolerate your thoughts on that too. Feel free to leave a comment below.