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BLOGScience & Human Behavior... mostly

  • Arnie Benn

Why We Can't Debate Respectfully On Facebook.

Updated: Sep 22, 2022


I have become increasingly aware of how difficult it seems to be for people with different views to have a respectful and productive debate or argument. Those of us who use Facebook find ourselves posting things to most of the people we know, people from our current lives, as well as people from our past. In this extended personal network of friends, acquaintances, and family, there are sure to be people who have different views — politically, socially, religiously, or morally.

For example, if someone shares an article that supports President Obama, they will see comments of agreement from fellow supporters and comments of incredulity from those on the other side. If someone expresses support for Bibi Netanyahu, some will enthusiastically agree while others will lambast his politics, character, or simply marvel at the poster’s lack of wisdom or knowledge for supporting him. Sometimes, these comments become direct, abrasive, or even downright insulting. And if it's about Trump, fuggedaboudit!

It seems we do not know how to debate. It seems that we cannot accept ideas with which we disagree. It seems that we need others to believe as we believe or we become uncomfortable. We try to cajole, convince, or bully others into our mode of thinking. We denigrate or marginalize ideas that trouble us... and we may even begin to think less of those people who believe them.


What is the cause? Why are so many seemingly intelligent and caring people unable to debate respectfully or listen to other people’s ideas for understanding or for interest?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Most people are not interested in truth or fact. We are interested in validation. As a result, we rarely see the truth. Instead, we see what we want to see. For example, we do not watch the news channel we watch because it is right and the others are wrong. We watch the channel we watch because it is saying what we like to hear.

Our minds have a powerful ability to ignore, marginalize or undermine ideas with which we disagree. On a chemical level, our deepest truth is vulnerability. We are mortal and frail and we must compete for our survival in a scary world of limited resources. Our primary concern, subconsciously and constantly, is safety and security. In order to feel safe and secure, we must associate ourselves with a group and we must believe that our group is the best, strongest, or most correct group. As long as we believe this, we can feel safe, and one of our most powerful drives is to believe we are right. (We don’t usually criticize our own driving, but we will readily criticize that other driver.)

The problem is that, as smart, educated, modern, liberated, citizens of the world, we make the mistake of believing that we are above this sort of instinctive thinking. But we are deluding ourselves. The uncomfortable truth is that none of us are right. We all simply have the opinions and beliefs that make us feel right, and therefore safe. The truth is almost always going to be somewhere in between our two opposing positions.


One way that we can get beyond this divisive group-think is to recognize that there are worthwhile value to which the other side ascribes and aspires. I believe that most of us, when pressed, will admit that our friends and relatives who vote the other way are not, in fact, stupid or without principle. We know this! As such, we should realize that they are drawn to their political conviction for a reason. This should open a pathway through which we can seek out the positive values that they feel draw them to their precinct.

We are drawn to our political perspective by our survival instinct, despite how convinced we all are of the logic and demonstrable correctness of our views. We all react to our innate biological vulnerability by seeking security in one of two ways. We flee from our subconscious fear either to the Left or to the Right — either towards compassion or towards personal responsibility. In fact, we are all a mixture of these two responses to fear. Sometimes we want to be saved and protected; at other times we resolve to be strong and independent. These are simply two different approaches to attempting to reach safety and security.

Those who are 51% or more about compassion will be on the political Left.

Those who are 51% or more about personal responsibility will be on the Right.

But then group-think and insecurity kick in, and we start insisting on being 100% right instead of 50% right. That is where the problems begin. We fight each others' ethos instead of working together in compromise and, thereby, winning the benefit of both.

Our society needs both compassion and personal responsibility, in balance. Each of us, as individuals, should reflect that balance. When we are ready to engage with the other side in compromise, engaging the best that both sides have to offer, then we will begin to heal our society. Until then, politics will continue building walls between us when it could be building bridges.


It would seem logical that any wise person would want to hone the truth of what they believe by constantly bumping it up against the ideas of others, especially others from within their extended communities, who come from similar value systems.

If we truly want to be wise and honest, we should use debate as an opportunity to vet our beliefs, to hold them up to the light of day and compare them to the ideas of people we know and, for the most part, respect. Unfortunately, many of us tend to lose some respect for our fellow as soon as we see that they believe in an idea that we reject: If they believe that, surely they are beneath my intellectual level. Surely they are misinformed, or perhaps even stupid or ignorant. As such, I can freely insult, denigrate, or even dismiss them and their ideas.

A wise person would realize that there is no truth, only perspective. And if there is a 'truth,' it is far more likely that it is a combination of our values and beliefs than that it is all one or all the other. A wise person would realize that the middle, the Center, is the healthy place. The Center is where Left and Right meet in compromise. The Center is where there is balance between socialism and capitalism, between idealism and pragmatism, between freedom and dependence, between physical and spiritual.

A wise person and his friend would both use the opportunity and the ideas of the other to draw them closer to the Center, as well as to allow himself to be drawn closer to the center. Polarized views are a sign of fearful and constrained thinking, of needing to feel right. The further from the Center we are, the more dysfunctional and insecure we show ourselves to be, finding solace only in the comfort of our dogma. Openness to respectful and constructive debate and to other ideas is a sign of security and wisdom.

Let us debate, not so much to convince the other, but to move closer to each other. That is the way of peace.

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