We live in a deeply divided society. To a greater degree than any point in recent memory, we struggle to speak to one another – to have difficult conversations. That is bad for all of us because we are living in a transformational era urgently in need of great thinkers and audacious ideas.
Technology has revolutionized the way we communicate, organize, and work. Globalization of markets has ushered in the knowledge economy and resource scarcity. Ratcheting up competition has brought fresh concerns about environmental sustainability and income inequality between the haves and have nots. Opportunity, as well as conflict and instability, has led to migration on scales not seen since World War II. Across many countries, the march for civil rights has steadily incorporated ever more voices into such earnest discussions.
The defining questions of our age require collaboration. However, we live in a time equally defined by our inability to hear and learn from one another. On Twitter, the most active users are increasingly likely to amplify extremist voices and not engage across the ideological aisle. As the visualization below illustrates, the “Twitterverse” is intellectually segregated.
Unfortunately, virtual life has now come to resemble reality. Our political bodies have witnessed similar discord. In the United States, two decades ago the median Democrat and Republican were strikingly close. Today, they are worlds apart.
It is now commonplace in the United States for people to consider political Others as unmarriable and irredeemable. Similar patterns of polarization have been witnessed across Continental Europe as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Hungary have all grappled with social and political upheaval. Left- and right-wing populist movements have achieved considerable electoral success and reshaped public discourse.
For us at Speakeasy, this is a reminder of the continued importance of our mission to be an intellectual buffet in an intellectually starving world. To create an intellectual safe space in which ideas can be dissected, discussed, debated with the aim of mutual understanding and personal growth.
Recent internal discussions have prompted us to reflect on the need for creating a framework for sustaining and fostering such conversations. We’ve come away from this exercise with some foundational principles worth elaborating:
- Humans are fallible. We operate under imperfect knowledge. The core principle of facilitating such conversations is to come away with a deeper respect for our fellow human.
We will not judge statements or people at their worst. We will give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
- We believe that the vast majority of people are striving to create a better world. One in which humans are more likely to live happy, peaceful, and meaningful lives.
We might differ in terms of priorities or policies but the baseline assumption we hold is that disagreements are well-intentioned and honest.
- This does not dismiss the reality of genuine philosophical difference.
Jonathan Haidt famously argues there are five moral foundations we operate on – Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, In-Group/Loyalty Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity – all of which varies widely amongst liberals and conservatives. Writing in The Righteous Mind, Haidt notes:
Liberals reject three of these foundations. They say “No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.” They say, “Let’s question authority.” And they say, “Keep your laws off my body.”
Liberals have very noble motives for doing this. Traditional authority, traditional morality can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don’t fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.
Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom.
So once you see this – once you see that liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, that they form a balance on change versus stability – then I think the way is open to step outside the moral matrix.
Some people are simply wired differently: and, there is nothing wrong with that. In Haidt’s words, we must “step out” of our personal moral matrix – thus abandoning any pretense of moral righteousness – in order to overcome our own biases and see another’s perspective.
We hope to live up to these aspirations and ask our audience to hold us accountable. It is our aim to regularly feature such content across our platform, either written or audio/visual. Particularly, we aim to host a “Difficult Conversations” series in which writers, as well as readers, volunteer to discuss issues near and dear to them with the intent of mutual understanding and personal growth. It is our hope that these discussions be moderated and anchored in fairness, justice, and charity.
Keep an eye out for our inaugural conversation discussing recent developments in Israel/Palestine between two passionate and open-minded observers.