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Why is it getting so hard to agree to disagree? How do we fix it?

Early in 2018, I decided to step away from social media.

In the space of 5 minutes, with my body still reacting to the rage I felt after a Facebook argument, I deleted my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts  (the latter has now been re-established but in much healthier terms). 

It was the midst of campaigns for presidential elections in Brazil after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and  I was finding myself in more and more online brawls. Desperate for positive change, but feeling angry towards people that couldn’t/wouldn’t see the ‘right way’. I had an underlying sense of hopelessness. It felt to me like the world was in terrible shape (moving towards implosion) and that most people were unreasonable, conservative, planet-destroying bigots. I could only see people that cared for material success and traditions that (in my eyes) had no place in modern society.

Every time I opened the news I also felt indignation. I could feel my heart race and my body sweat. Justice and fairness are such central pillars to my value system, that looking at opinions and behaviours that didn’t match my beliefs, made my blood boil.

Overall I was angry, anxious and hopeless.

Deleting Social Media

The hours after deleting Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were weird. Silence and void. Nothing to look (or be angry) at. Nobody agreeing or disagreeing with my opinions. Around the same time, I stopped following the news because it made me feel exactly the same way.

It’s not that I don’t keep informed on key topics affecting our society, I do. I just don’t consume it in the format of ‘news’. I don’t have news apps on my phone pushing sensationalist headlines every couple of minutes. I don’t start the day by looking at what happened in the last 8 hours while I was sleeping. I consume information on my own terms.

A great example of how I put this in practice is COVID-19.  I choose not to engage with the fear-inducing reports that keep showing me the cases and deaths every day, picking up stories of non-compliance to government guidelines and heated one-sided debates of how everyone is doing everything wrong, from the government to the public. Instead, I watch the government announcements to make sure I am compliant and I look at the data for new cases, deaths etc on the dashboards of the Financial Times, and if I am feeling particularly curious about a topic, I try and find a journal on it (but honestly, leave the vaccine discussions to the experts).

Almost 3 years after deciding to quit the frenzy, I feel like I am a different human. In simple terms, I am happier.

It doesn’t mean I block everything out and live in a bubble or fairytale. It doesn’t imply I am blind or devoid of anger for racial injustice. It doesn’t suggest I don’t care about feminism. It doesn’t indicate that I demand less of government officials. It doesn’t change my desire for a better world where people and nature can both thrive. It just means that I look at high-quality information that allows me to be more objective, and to hold a realistic big-picture perspective. And yes, sometimes I still get angry, but much less often and usually much more justifiably.

The Building Blocks of Progress

The point of telling you this is to say that with this newly gained perspective, I can see that for a while I was being a ‘bigot’ (a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions). It’s hard to say this, but it’s true. Today I can see that, while I felt like I was trying to advance progress, my online brawling behaviour was in direct conflict with the two most fundamental aspects of progress: freedom and education.

I was so carried away by my quest to make the world a better place and so angry at everyone that disagreed with my progressive views, that I forgot that one of the most important elements of progress is freedom. Freedom to think, to say, and to behave as one pleases (provided it doesn’t hurt anyone’s rights) without fear of retaliation or censorship. The bottom line is: If we remove the rights guaranteed by freedom of speech and expression, minorities would be severely repressed and societal progress would happen at an even slower rate.

Freedom is of course closely followed by education, as to have the right to express and behave according to a belief, requires you to have formed an opinion. Note that I don’t mean ‘formal’ education, I mean the combination of high quality data with critical thinking. While freedom and education might be the most cliche answers to progress, they hold true.

Needless to say that by engaging in those online arguments, neither I or my opponents were anywhere near educating the other on why their views were outdated or had terrible side-effects. In those arguments, both sides were uninterested in learning from the other person.

The point of the argument wasn’t the exchange, it was to shout out opinions from higher-moral ground expecting to come out on top (which in social media terms means more likes). In hindsight, I can also see my inability to discern the cases where ignorance was the root-cause of an opinion, versus one formed based on personal experiences and beliefs that were simply different to mine (eg. religion).

Why is it getting so hard to agree to disagree?

The way we consume information today is toxic, it’s hurting our brains, and it’s damaging the fabric of our relationships with other human beings. 

To summarise something that is well known, the algorithms in social media are designed to make their product ‘stickier’. The more you engage and consume in those platforms, the more valuable you are because your data is helping advertisers target you. In the words of Mark Zuckerberg himself: Senator, we run ads.

There is nothing evil about the algorithms. The issue is that we are flawed human beings.

On one hand, we are more likely to engage (click) with information that makes us angry and social media shows us more of what we engage with. On the other hand, we have the rise of identity politics.

Today, in order to belong to a group, you need to subscribe to all their views, otherwise, you face retaliation. You are no longer entitled to design your own views in the political spectrum. You are either ‘with us or against us’. A recent example where this was clearly the case, is with the issues of racial injustice and police brutality in America, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. While every sensible human seems to agree that it was a sad and horrifying act and that the police officers responsible should face the consequences, not everyone agrees on the root cause of the problem or on how to solve this issue, and this is pushing people away from each other and further from effective resolution.

Identity politics makes it very hard to agree to disagree, find mutual ground and to co-exist as human beings because suddenly, your opinions directly harm my identity. They hurt who I am.

In summary, we are taking everything personally.

So where do we go from here? How do we fix it?

Personally, my solution was to:

  1. Firstly, step away from social media and the news. To consume information on my own terms, so I could get a more realistic picture of the topics that matter to me. What I found is that the world is getting better and not worse.
  2. Be hyper-aware of my behaviour in discussions so I actively avoid becoming angry at people or being a bigot. To thrive to listen more and speak less so I can empathise with people and understand where they are coming from.
  3. To protect freedom and education above individual opinions, as they are the pillars of true progress.

It’s probably not perfect or bullet-proof, but I am better than I was yesterday, and that’s what matters most!

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