If you've been on the internet recently, you've probably seen some stark disagreements take place. You've likely noticed that while there is a wide array of views on any given topic, those views tend to fall on one side of a fence, separating everyone into binary options, for or against something, no matter how nuanced the topic is.
Perhaps you've even been a part of one, heroically convincing the free world of your superior views, simply by posting a meme. While you may get fatigued with the lack of font choices, the recycled satirical images mocking an opposing view are more than effective at uplifting yours. One thing is for certain: Your opinion is completely correct, and everyone else is a garbage person. Unless we're referring to an inspiring story about (or a picture of) a puppy, people can not find merit in the opposing view, so the most appropriate action is to make fun of it.
Trust me. I know how the internet works.
When Facebook was first invented, it was created as a place to connect friends. While it was successful for a period of time, the new media marketers got involved and started teaching people, explaining how to be an effective user of the internet. They did talks and online videos, and daily blogs, talking to people about being authentic and telling businesses that if they did not join the internet, they would disappear in a matter of months, abandoned by their human customers who have chosen to live their lives online. These marketers implored people to be active on social media so they could become the target of an advertising campaign.
Eventually, everyone was on social media, and it's created more division than ever before. Because of that, we can now separate everyone into two groups of people like never in history:
(1) Those who believe that their point of view is more sensible than anyone else's.
(2) Those who believe everyone in the world can be divided into two groups.
The internet is a great place to insult people. Perhaps the best thing to happen to animosity since the middle finger is a tiny profile pic of you with a clever "@" handle telling someone to go off themselves for having a different opinion. Insulting someone becomes so much easier when there is a barrier between you and your opponent's personhood.
Before the internet, people had yards, dinner tables, town squares and taverns. These were known as social centers where people would connect, share beers and ideas with one another, and of course, as a way of connecting personally. While some families say that the only thing not on the thanksgiving dinner table is politics and religion, two things that are in abundant supply are gravy, and building a friendship.
It is in such settings that people have built towns, formed governments, gained rides to the airport and helped families in need. People love a communal experience, and it is an essential part of daily life. This is the primary reason people spend time at restaurants. I once went to Lamberts in Alabama, "the home of the throwed rolls". At lamberts, the food was acceptable, but not notable. What was notable is that fresh bread rolls the size of a softball were delivered frequently throughout your meal. Rather than hand them to you with tongues, they would toss them across the room by hand to each table, daring you to eat yet another, along with bottomless barbecue style side dishes. The restaurant was full and people interacted with laughter and conversation. They connected with those seated near them as they ensured no roll would hit the floor. The entire dining room enjoyed a community experience, building camaraderie with each other and especially the staff.
Bars even more so have long been a place where communities gather. It's one place where you may end up sitting next to a stranger in one of your most open moments. The history of the American tavern is an important one when it comes to community development and political ideas. According to a Smithsonian Magazine article, by Rebecca Dalzell, the Taverns were an important part of the early colonies in America. "Without them I don’t think you would have had exactly the same political landscape." she explains, because "In taverns people could mix together."
No one can deny that President Barack Obama (emeritus) understands that sharing a beer is a worthy way for minds to meet. He once famously calmed down a national argument over beers in the rose garden. Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. had a brief disagreement when the Cambridge police officer arrested the professor in his own home, because he matched the description of an alleged perpetrator of a break in–that he is a "black, male". The internet lit up with activists arguing about whether the cop was doing his job, or just being racist.
The President knew that mansplaining on social media wasn't going to be an effective way to mend fences. Sure, he got himself into a little bit of PR trouble for saying the police "acted stupidly" when asked to comment about the incident, but he was smart enough to follow it up with a "beer summit" where the two, along with the President and the Vice President, sat down to clear the air and discuss ways to solve these sorts of issues in the future. If it didn't actually solve any disputes, it nevertheless ended the argument between these two gentleman even if only by shifting the media conversation to making fun of a staged "guys night" as a photo op complete with clinking glasses. Even though it was ridiculed, and VP Joe Biden's* beer was non-alcoholic, it still has value as it highlights the power of sitting face to face with someone, and taking the opportunity to connect with the human on the other side of a difference of views.
*Update: Vice President Joe Biden is the President of the United States now, as of the writing of this text. No word on whether he still drinks non-alcoholic beer.
Crowley and Gates have cleared the air, but the rest of us are still debating issues on the internet and talking about how we could never be friends with someone with views that oppose our values. This presents a problem.
The problem is that people are going to hang out with other people that are pretty much just like them. People choose where to live based on what best suits their views, they join clubs where they can find like minded peers, and go to churches that share their values (or don't go to church at all for similar reasons). This creates an insulation of views, limiting the exposure to new information, or alternative viewpoints. Furthermore, it separates us from the human nature of those who have those opposing views. The only place you hear any alternative view is in the form of criticism or rhetoric on TV and social media sites. This is mostly useless for bringing change or accepting the influence of a compelling thought. Because instead of throwing rolls, they're throwing words.
People are incited by words, and it seems that people are just as emotionally aroused by the words as they may be by other stimuli like images and sounds. According to a study published in the peer reviewed journal, PLOS One on the emotional content of discourse "Indeed, several lines of evidence support the possibility that language comprehension can be affected by emotional states." That means that your choice of words has an impact on what people hear, especially in matters held closely as part of one's identity.
So when someone says "them's fightin' words", it's because the way you communicate may have as much fire power as anything. When language points a finger at a person's identity, the gloves are up. The listener will no longer be able to process what you believe to be a convincing, logical argument, if their defenses are up. All too common, the self enlightened will go to the extremes by calling their dissenters names. You can imagine when you call someone a lib-tard or a re-dump-lican, you are not only ensuring they remain an enemy to you, but you're also inducing an emotional response that may cause them to wax more defensive of the views you are criticizing, and block their ability to hear your ideas.
Look at a map on election night. You'll see that the rural areas vote red, and the metropolitan areas vote blue. This is not surprising for many reasons, but the simplest reason is that people who live further from their neighbors are more likely to take interest in political views that favor self reliance and personal liberties. People who live in more concentrated, urban settings are surrounded by more diversity, and favor policies associated with a sense of social support. In the inner city, you are almost certain to live next to, and shop with someone far poorer or far richer than you. In the suburbs, the communities are more likely to be homogenous.
Someone I don't know, named Kwame Anthony Appiah said it best: "Identity precedes ideology". That is, who you are, where you grow up, who you spend time with are better predictors of what you believe than anything – including your depth of research, deep thinking and the identified merits of the belief. We all share a human feature known as "confirmation bias" which shows us that even rigorous research can lead us to the conclusion we already wanted, or those that will protect our place within our social network (offline versions especially).
Debating the facts in a simple forum will not change someones views in most cases, if ever. People are unlikely to be changed by way of being convinced, because the truth is that facts don't change our minds. People tend to accept information that supports their existing views and reject the information that does not. This is because protecting one's current beliefs, especially those that become a part of our identity, help us feel comfortable, protecting our status in our tribe.
There is no doubt we like to spend time with people that share our values, and that seems reasonable. Study finds our desire for 'like-minded others' is hard wired. Being attracted to similarity helps us ensure acceptance in a tribe, and therefore ensures greater success in life. Tribe mentality has been studied by evolutionary psychologists extensively, but regardless of their findings, we see it every day in our lives and the lives of those around us. People protect their tribe, and are prone to respond to language that demeans their tribal identity with defense.
As is apparent with voting trends, it's hard to see the other side unless you know the human first. That's why being around someone who has a different perspective is critical to growth. If nothing else, it may add credibility to your own beliefs and move the needle for the other. When you have a friend with a different point of view, your understanding of their character helps you understand their view better, even if you don't share it, and never do. No longer are they the (anonymous nasty word) but they are your friend, and they come by their views honestly. The opportunity to sit with those of differing views, not across the aisle, but face to face should be cherished.
For everyone of us humans, the connection to other people is essential. As people have increased their time on social media, and in many cases decreased their time interacting with people in real life, loneliness is on the rise. Loneliness is dangerous for our health. In fact, loneliness can be more dangerous for your health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.
On the other hand, when beers are shared, people connect and listen to each other. But even if juicy topics never come up, the dopamine juices do. A shared beer creates more a human connection than you will ever get from a digital meme. A disagreement with respect and empathy ultimately enriches your views.
And if you're lucky, some of them will change along the way.