Mutual offensiveness and tolerance of viewpoint diversity

Blog by Neil Thin

 

 

In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), we are invited to imagine an absurdly polarised dispute about the culturally approved way of breaking open a boiled egg. The Big-Endians of Lilliput have ended up at war with the Little-Endians of Blefuscu over this seemingly intractable debate. It is a well-known satire which was clearly intended to stoke more sensible and creative thinking about a wide variety of potentially harmful attitudes, practices, and institutions: dogmatic religious beliefs; political polarization; use of historical suffering to justify authoritarian offence-taking; ethnocentrism, cultural arrogance, and blind adherence to tradition; autocratic rule; geographical and social divisions; bureaucratic failure and inadequate attempts at peace-making. It is also an instructive morality tale about the potential of the outsider’s viewpoint to find ways of resolving seeming irresolvable antagonisms – such as the ingeniously simple ‘Convenient-End’ peace-maker’s solution.

Most real-world polarizations are less trivial and less insoluble, offering more scope for compromises. Nonetheless, humans will always find things disagree over, and people will differ over whether those debates are important or trivial, and over whether they should be debates. Sometimes our disagreements are largely semantic, and could be resolved through clarification of terms. Sometimes they are about differences of power and influence, and the way forward is mainly to ensure that diverse viewpoints are fairly aired and listened to respectfully. Sometimes there are real material harms or benefits at stake, and our debates will require evidence and reasoning that is strong enough to justify changes of behaviour.

Where compromises are possible and potentially valuable, we should work hard to find them even if this exposes us to personal risks of hostile disagreement or censorious denunciation. Clearly we must try to minimise the risk of giving offence, while also accepting that sometimes there is no entirely non-offensive way of inviting people to change their minds. As for those disagreements where one side really does seem to be defending a harmful belief or practice, we have a clear moral duty to engage in debate rather than pretending the disagreement doesn’t matter.

As scholars, teachers, and learners, how can we help one another debate sensitive issues in more open-minded, respectful, and tolerant ways?

Are there some issues that are simply too divisive to address head-on, or should we insist on the academic freedom to debate any issues we choose, in whatever way we choose?

Will trigger warnings, ‘safe spaces,’ and openly censorious disapproval of some viewpoints help us to reduce some of the current problems of polarization? Or should we instead be putting more emphasis on anti-fragility, encouraging people to be less censorious and more open-minded, and to practice empathy and moral flexibility?

Below is a set of paired examples of viewpoints which are likely to be held by significant numbers of staff and students at our University. I have paired and polarised them to illustrate the point that some viewpoints are mutually offensive, if not outright incompatible.

Some of these happen to be currently ‘hot-button’ polarised debates which result in heated disagreements and in censorious and abusive behaviour. Others, though highly sensitive, seem somehow to be much more rarely implicated in denunciatory attacks, extreme polarization, or censorship. Some of these debates are polarized only in some countries, in some communities, or in some disciplines, but not in others. Some of these debates which were fierce in the past are now believed to be ‘settled’ in some populations, so that debating them is seen as either uninteresting or as unnecessarily toxic. Also the nature of the polarization varies, given that some of these are more strongly associated with emotionally compelling adherence to cultural practices or personal lifestyle options, and some are strongly either/or whereas others can be more easily adapted to reach compromise positions.

Let’s assume that most of us can agree on two things:

  • Universities have long tended to provide exceptionally tolerant and engaged social climates in which scholars are encouraged to engage in difficult conversations involving incompatible or antagonistic viewpoints – even though they have never been perfect in this regard.

  • Though humans are always likely to disagree strongly on many issues, it may be possible to bring about further social progress towards allowing those disagreements to be conducted in considerate ways, allowing for free airing of diverse viewpoints, and encouraging people to try to empathise with viewpoints that they disagree with or are unsure about.

Now please read through some or all of this list of antogonistic pairs of beliefs and values. This is not an exhaustive list, and there is no intention to prioritise between these, or assume moral equivalence of any of these viewpoints. While reading, consider the implications of the way these debates are phrased and structured here – particularly the fact that items in the left column have been phrased in terms of disapproval and discouragement, whereas items in the right column are primarily about defence and/or positive advocacy.

 

 

 

Disapproval, antagonistic activism
 
Defence, justification, approval
We are better off not advocating free speech, because this idea is so often abused to justify offence-giving.
Free speech, including the freedom to offend within the law, is a fundamental right for all citizens of a civilized society
Humans would get along better without idea of God, which is a dangerous fantasy used to justify dogma, authoritarianism, and learned helplessness.
To be fully human, you must be faithful to God and worship regularly.
Torture and cruel punishments are obviously wrong because they hurt and they cause lasting trauma, terror, and resentment.
Torture and cruel punishments are often justifiable as ways of eliciting the truth and discouraging crime.
Eating meat is wrong because it causes unnecessary animal suffering.
Eating meat is natural for humans, and vegetarians should be more open-minded and tolerant.
Abortion is wrong because killing is wrong, and foetuses suffer.
Guaranteeing the right to abortion has been one of the most significant forms of moral progress in the modern era.
Splitting Scotland from the UK would cause decades of catastrophic and unnecessary socioeconomic disruption.
Making Scotland independent from the rest of the UK will soon bring enough benefits to everyone to justify the disruption.
Because military technologies are often abused, it is unethical to invest in businesses that produce or trade in them.
Because warfare is often justifiable, and because military capability often protects peace, it is good to invest in military technologies.
We should disinvest from fossil fuels, because irresponsible use of them is causing irreversible harm.
Fossil fuels have helped humanity achieve unprecedented progress and seem likely to lead us towards an even brighter future in which we will be less dependent on them.
Alcohol is major a cause of crime, illness, and suffering, and should be made illegal.
Alcohol is one of humanity’s most important sources of pleasure and creativity.
‘Conversion therapy’ should be banned, because it is at any age harmful and insulting to homosexuals and to transgender people
Therapists should be free to explore a variety of ways of helping young people work through doubts about their sexuality or identity, including some of those labelled ‘conversion therapy’.
Colonialism was mainly evil, and we should discourage any appreciation of people or practices associated with it.
It is important to learn about the many good things that developed through colonial encounters, and to learn appreciatively about the people who made them happen.
‘Race talk’ and racialized segregation should be discouraged in universities, except as critical recognition of a set of toxic worldviews that we are trying to live without.
‘Race talk’ and racialized segregation should be encouraged in universities to raise awareness of identities and inequalities.
It is wrong to allow biological males to gain admission to women’s sports or to women’s single-sex spaces.
A good society accepts gender self-ID as the basis for admission to gendered spaces.
Mutilation of children’s genitalia is cruel, violent, and it violates children’s autonomy, and should therefore be forbidden.
Genital cutting of children is a sacred tradition that is well worth defending.
Promoting ‘reparations’ for injustices that occurred several generations ago makes no moral sense and is socially divisive.
Interethnic harmony will only become possible once people of European descent pay reparations and make apologies to people descended from victims of slavery and colonialism.

 

 

Once you have reflected on your own responses to these views and considered which you might agree with, or disagree with, or reword in some way, I would recommend you try three kinds of mental or collaborative exercise in response to the above list. Each of these exercises seems to offer scope for learning to think and talk better in response to polarised debates such as these:

  1. Try justifying a viewpoint you currently disapprove of: find an item you feel passionate about, and imagine if you are someone with opposite views to those that you actually hold. As an exercise in empathy and moral flexibility, prepare a set of arguments that such a person might use to justify their position.

  2. Try reframing, by reversing the approval/disapproval phrasing: You will notice that this list is structured in terms of antagonism/disapproval (left column) versus defence/approval (right column). As an exercise in thinking through the language of moral persuasion, you could rephrase any pair of items on this list so that they would swap sides. For example, instead of disapproval versus approval of free speech, you could have disapproval of censoriousness versus a defence of censoriousness and of public offence-taking. Or you could replace the disapproval of the idea of God with disapproval of atheism. In most cases, it should be possible to rephrase these issues in an inverse way, with the beliefs of the left column being rephrased in approving terms and right columns rephrased in terms of disapproval or discouragement.

  3. Compose a third column for peace-makers: identify moderate positions that emphasise solutions and potential areas of agreement between antagonists.

If you learn something, or come up with insights worth sharing, as a result of any of these exercises, please let us know in the comments box below.

2 replies to “Mutual offensiveness and tolerance of viewpoint diversity”

  1. Michael Jindra says:

    Good article, Neil. I’m a member of the US organization Braver Angels, which tries to lower antagonism or “depolarize” by getting people to talk to opposing groups. They have specific workshops that have worked well, called Common Ground Workshops which “aim to unpack how Red and Blue sides see the underlying components of a specific issue, with the goal of mutually discovering areas of potential common ground and agreement. Workshop participants interactively learn together through 1:1 pairings and broader group discussions.” They use specific ground rules. https://braverangels.org/what-we-do/common-ground/ for details.

    1. ekea09 says:

      Thanks so much Michael Jindra, sorry I’m arriving so late to your helpful suggestion. For others, here’s a link to the wonderful Braver Angels site: braverangels.org; on the same anti-polarization theme, it’s also worth signing up to get regular emails from The Flip Side: http://www.theflipside.io

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