Social Diplomacy, Part 5: Difference and Commonality

  • Respecting differences, and identifying underlying shared values

One interesting way to examine polarization—people defining themselves as enemies to each other—is to look at the underlying similarities. Opposites exist in relationship to each other, and have some kind of connecting similarity. For example, what is the opposite of a dog? If I said “the sky,” you would likely disagree. It feels wrong. Several people might have their own opposites for a dog but I suspect most people’s opposite is also a pet, probably a mammal, and most likely a cat.

In a polarizing conversation, we tend to want to find ways to sharply differentiate our position or “side” from the other. Sometimes that means giving up territory that hurts our case in the long run, makes us vulnerable to critique and is actually inaccurate or incomplete. This is what happens when we get more caught up in what we’re against than what we’re for.

Image of a snow fox surrounded by snow.
Image of a snow fox surrounded by snow. Photo by Jonatan Pie.

For example, if your side advocates for the imprisonment of puppies and the giving of free ice cream to children on Sundays, I might in my rage declare all puppies should be free and children shouldn’t get free ice cream. I actually don’t have a problem with the ice cream, I simply have a hard time agreeing with someone who would imprison puppies so wantonly. The problem is, the other side gets to point out how awful I am for denying ice cream to children, and how dare I put puppies ahead of human beings?

This tendency contributes to making excuses for bad behavior on the part of people on our “side,” which further weakens our position and harms personal integrity. We might point to the problematic teachings of one religion and make excuses for the problematic teachings of our own. Another facet of this is when people feel discouraged by being stereotyped and let themselves be seduced into acting out, thinking,“If you believe I’m that way, then I might as well be that way.”

Ceding values and strengths to define ourselves more sharply in opposition interferes with any ability to work together. Authentic differences in opinion and approach, however, are important and should not be erased. We grow from sharing a diversity of perspectives and finding workable agreements. To some extent, we need strong voices to move our communities in a particular direction. Where we go awry is when we lose patience with being in relationship to the other “side.”

An example: when discussing mass incarceration and policing, we have strong voices pushing for complete abolition of the prison system and police, as well as strong voices advocating for the consolidation and strengthening of those systems. When I am talking with someone on the other side of the issue, it feels important to recognize when we have underlying shared dreams: one possibility might be peaceful communities in which people can live and work without violence. From that perspective, I can explain why I think mass incarceration and “Broken Windows” policing undermines the goal of healthy communities, and why instead investing in the strengthening and autonomy of communities of color promotes that goal.

Even when we do not share values, it builds good faith to make an effort to understand why the other side thinks and feels as they do. This does not require agreeing with them, simply acknowledging that their choices make sense given their perspective and experience. It is about treating people with dignity and respect, which is the topic of the next post.