Over the last couple of years there have been some significant public debates where the results have defied belief – at least, the beliefs of some people. We’ve had the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and we are facing a similar debate in Australia over the same-sex marriage vote.
On both sides of all these, and numerous other debates, are two broad schools of argument. And when that happens, there’s little chance of a coherent debate.
Last year, I had the opportunity to hear Andrew Macleod speak at a conference. Although Macleod was working in the corporate world then, he was formerly in the military and was involved in negotiations with the Taliban. One of the old axioms he maintained was that you never win a logical argument with emotion or an emotional argument with logic.
Let’s think about that for a moment and look at the results of the Brexit vote and the last US presidential election.
Much of the rhetoric employed by the “Yes” vote for Britain to leave the UK and by the Trump campaign to win the election was not founded on evidence or data. I’m not saying there was none but the most powerful tool used by both of those campaigns was emotion – specifically fear in my view.
And there is a lesson that comes from those results.
Neither of the winning teams have been able to transform those emotion-powered victories into cogent plans that can be executed. Britain is still flailing, with the Conservative government struggling to find a way forward with their internal legislative agenda as well as progressing the Brexit plan.
And Trump’s agenda is in tatters, having seen his centrepiece health policy shattered and his plan to build a wall across the country’s border already looking shaky.
What both these actions show is that while you can be elected on emotion, you can’t govern with it.
What does this mean for us?
I mentioned the same-sex marriage debate earlier. I’ve made my views on this plain. And I’ve copped a bit of flak for those views, mainly from conservative Christians although the odd atheist and agnostic has told me my Christian perspective is not relevant regardless of whether I vote yes or no.
It’s taken me a couple of weeks but I think I’ve nailed down why people are struggling to understand each other on both sides of this debate.
Christians who intend to vote no (and I’m generalising a bit when I say this) feel that they are coming from a logical perspective. They see the words of scripture as a set of rules (or logic in their mind).
Then there are people who have a strong emotional view on whether or not same sex couples should be allowed to be legally married. And we have people who make a logical argument for same sex marriage.
So, we have people voting yes from an emotional perspective, no from an emotional perspective, yes from a logical perspective and no from a logical perspective.
In other words, it’s not surprising we have a high degree of animosity being exhibited between some people. They are often arguing from extremely diverse points of view that can almost never be reconciled.
For example, how can someone who has the view that two men should never be legally married because they find it immoral (which is, I think, an emotional view) find common ground with someone who believes it makes sense legally for same sex couples to have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples (and they don’t by the way – ask any same-sex couple about who has control over life and death health decisions).
Wisdom from cinema
If we accept that people arguing from completely different positions are unlikely to find an avenue to civility, then something needs to change.
I recently re-watched the movie Creed. While wisdom rarely passes the lips of Rocky Balboa, when he was speaking to Adonis Creed he said something important. To paraphrase, he said you can’t listen while you’re talking. It’s very difficult to listen, patiently, to someone you disagree with. But it’s important.
All points of view in a civil debate deserve to be heard. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t make their view any less worth listening to. We can learn a lot by listening to contrary points of view rather than living in an echo chamber.
Whether you are discussing a controversial topic on the public agenda or evaluating a business case in the office it is important to listen to those who disagree with you.
In the movie World War Z, before Jerusalem is over-run by zombies, the city prepared itself. Despite the overwhelming conventional wisdom that a zombie apocalypse was impossible, the government had someone argue the contrary point of view, regardless of how silly it might seem, just in case.
By putting ourselves in the other party’s shoes, regardless of how extreme that point of view might be, we can learn. This can help us better understand our own actions but also foster understanding that can lead to a more civil debate.