Better Conversation

Try Empathy Before ‘Getting High’ Off Debate

When’s the last time you changed your mind as the result of an intellectual debate? Think about the last political position you got turned around on by dint of truly unassailable logic. For that matter, consider the last ground you gave during an interpersonal disagreement with a significant other because their argument was Just. That. Good. The recent vitriolic Twitter debates around education reform has again driven home for me this truth: We may use the same words, but when it comes to discussing our views with those who disagree, we’re speaking different languages (when we’re speaking to each other at all). Let’s consider a few truisms grounded in brain physiology and psychology (the evidence base for much of this is summarized in social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s essential book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion ). First, when we get into arguments, our brains literally switch into fight-or-flight mode; humans are unable to distinguish an intellectual or emotional threat from a physical one, and the parts of the brain responsible for highest-order critical thinking go dark. Locking horns in these arguments releases hits of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) as our bodies rev up. That’s why it feels so darn rewarding to watch Jon Stewart pillorying Fox News if you’re liberal or Sean Hannity pillorying President Obama if you’re conservative. Second, despite our self-image as reasoned thinkers, our politics stem from deep-set moral values and are inherently driven by emotion. Broadly speaking, research reveals that liberals are obsessively concerned with preventing harm as well as ensuring group fairness and equal opportunity. Conservatives care about these things but also care deeply about loyalty, respecting authority, sanctity and individual liberty in the sense of unencumbered freedom. Education, of course, does not cut cleanly along liberal and conservative lines. Nevertheless, on most divisive issues—Common Core and charter schools, for example—there is an underlying values clash at play that gets buried under the weight of marshalled “facts.” That’s why we end up shouting at one another, getting louder and louder in frustration because we don’t feel we’re being truly heard. Now, a brief defense of debate. I absolutely love to debate. I was (in)famous at my college newspaper, where I headed up the Opinion section, for constantly wanting to call for “forums” and “nuanced dialogue.” There is also value in authentic debate to hash out ideas and move them forward—think about the very best work meetings you’ve been a part of—but it takes a very specific set of circumstances: a real curiosity plus a safe, calm environment. There have been times I have changed my mind because of debates, but they have always been about topics about which I had few set opinions beforehand, and it usually happened after a few drinks late at night. Twitter, Facebook and online forums in general are not safe, calm environments; they are boxing rings. I am horribly guilty of stepping in to fight time and time again, of worrying I will be the equivalent of The Onion headline, Area Woman Decides Not to Post Facebook Status That Would Have Tipped Gun Control Debate. In the end, it bears repeating: We are emotional creatures. How many people changed their views on gay marriage simply because they began to realize they knew and were close to gay folks? How many religious conversion stories start with coming into relationships with people of that faith? By trying to build a similar base of empathy, we could engage so much more productively online around education. Instead of trying to convince those who are unconvincable, let’s tell our stories and ask them about theirs. Explain why we have come to believe what we believe, and seek to understand the same. Use technology creatively to get behind other’s eyes, like the site Homeless POV which uses GoPro cameras to illuminate the real day-to-day lives of the homeless. The tenor of our conversation isn’t going change overnight. Just know that the dopamine hit from clicking “post” comes at a cost—and know in your heart of hearts that you aren’t convincing anyone. Consider empathy first.
Elliot Haspel is an Education Advocacy Fellow with 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. A former public school teacher, his work focuses on the San Francisco Bay Area.
Elliot Haspel writes about early childhood and K-12 education policy. He works as a program officer for a philanthropic foundation in Richmond, VA. Elliot is the author of the forthcoming book, "Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It" (Black Rose, Nov. 2019).

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