Playing “Controversial Opinion.”

Earlier this month, Sean Blanda, writing at Medium.com, had this thought-provoking essay that relates to a lot of our recent content here at The Civility Blog. Titled The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, he comments on the impulse toward a team mentality when it comes to matters of opinion from politics to taste, and observes some of the ways that this leads to closed minds and an outright dismissal of anybody we perceive to be part of the opposing faction.

The problem, he says, stems from a psychological concept called false-consensus bias: the assumption we make that our values and beliefs are normal or widely held. It is fed by contemporary media outlets, which are increasingly segregated by ideological point of view. And it leads to the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t.

Blanda writes that the unfortunate results of this are a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right, and an assumption that opinions work like menu cards, where people who like the same TV shows, or movies, or music you do must also share the same views on social welfare, or banking reform, or immigration. It is a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, he says, rather than as complicated individual human beings. And it is ultimately about belittling people rather than trying to understand them.

The problem that Blanda is describing is related to several we’ve talked about here before. False-consensus bias, like confirmation bias, is exacerbated by filter bubbling – the situation where media outlets, and especially websites, serve us content that is tailored to our established viewing preferences. And it is parallel to some of the research we wrote about in December: the idea that party affiliation in the United States is increasingly a matter of tribalism rather than mere electoral politics.

It is difficult, on the one hand, to fight the notion that our own points of view are what’s normal when – because of the sum of our previous search queries – companies like Google and Facebook adapt some or all of what we see to what they think we want. And on the other hand, it is difficult not to conceive of political identity as team identity when the filters account for aesthetic and political choices in exactly the same way. If our personalized list of Facebook trending topics, for example, consistently places filtered political news next to science, business, and culture, it only makes sense that our brains begin to fit them all together.

In any case, in his essay, Sean Blanda offers some useful suggestions for how to overcome this kind of thinking. He tells us that it is imperative that we have conversations with people with whom we disagree, and that in those conversations, we must not try to “win”:

Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.

He suggests that we reconsider how we use social media. The next time you feel compelled to share a link, he suggests, ask yourself why you are doing it:

Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your world view, reminding your circle of intellectual teammates that you’re not on the Other Side?

And he offers a compelling idea for a game that is, fundamentally, about instilling civility. He calls it Controversial Opinion, but it might as easily be called the same thing as his essay: The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb. The rules are simple, Blanda writes: don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask questions about why that person feels that way.

Each player in turn reveals opinions that they hold, but that they assume are unpopular, about any topic at all. And in the other players’ surprise, the illusion of homogeneity – of having a team or a tribe – is systematically destroyed. Like the intimate discussions that we somehow never seem to quite be able to have, Controversial Opinion reveals our collective diversity and requires that we seek to understand each other as people — not essentialize, or belittle, or make fun.

It requires respect to play. It requires empathy to play well. And it has the potential to be a gateway from which we can exit the filter bubble and move from adversarial confrontation to the sort of meaningful, civil discussion that has the potential to get things done.

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