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Sometimes, there’s no common ground
The setting: A chic hotel restaurant. The subject (at least at first): Misinformation. The participants: Yours truly and a media figure who couldn’t be more different in outlook.
We’d never met before and this wasn’t a planned encounter. By chance, we ended up in the same place at the same time and the opportunity arose for a test in civility.
It was a pleasant counter, but not an overly constructive one.
I was in the hot seat as my conversational companion raised what they claimed was misinformation being peddled by conservative media. I didn’t agree with the premise, which seemed to surprise them.
We moved to the more general question of what to do about misinformation, which we agreed exists. Things diverged rather starkly from there: they believe government needs to regulate it, I don’t. They believe media shouldn’t entertain the “other side” of things that are unambiguous and unequivocally factual, I believe those things are rarer than they do.
This is where things went off the rails. I brought up tension between gender and sex as an area where there is debate about the core facts. They said the facts show there’s no debate.
At this point, I realized the core of our disagreement wasn’t about regulating misinformation, but rather about free speech.
I laid out two political positions: 1) that vaccine mandates are bad; 2) that we shouldn’t automatically and unquestioningly increase immigration numbers every year.
My question: “Do you believe, however much you disagree with these positions, that they are within the bounds of civil debate in Canada?”
Their answer: “No.”
Their rationale was that science supports vaccine mandates and that opposition to increased immigration is racist because economic arguments often cited don’t hold up.
I disagree with both of those assertions, but even if they were true, they are views that people can hold and legitimately debate. As it happens, these positions would be uncontroversial within the conservative movement, making it all the more concerning that someone in media would frame them as outside the Overton window.
My compatriot’s view was that only factual positions should be entertained. The problem with this, which I unsuccessfully argued, was that someone must then be the arbiter of facts. Government? The media? “Experts”? No one should have a monopoly on truth, which is what this outlook requires.
After over an hour of this, we were forced to adopt the insufferable position of “agreeing to disagree” before cordially parting company.
I should confess I’ve always had an idealistic view about discourse, which this interaction challenged. I’ve long known that social media debates are counterproductive. Character limits force oversimplifications, and having an audience promote a type of engagement that is performative more than genuine. But with time, space, and no audiences to pander to, private and in-person conversations should be the optimal avenue to find common ground.
Over the days that followed, I questioned whether I could have made my points any better and concluded I couldn’t. This wasn’t a failure of communication or a failure to find common ground. There simply wasn’t common ground to be found.
My takeaway from this isn’t that we shouldn’t still try, and it’s certainly not that we shouldn’t talk to those with whom we disagree. Perhaps by being civil and hearing the other person’s concerns, I helped chip away at their perceptions of people like me. My advice is to keep talking to people, but temper expectations. Some people are simply uncomfortable sharing the world with people who disagree with them.
I glossed over it earlier, but the most revealing part of the exchange might have been the other person’s surprise that I didn’t agree with them outright about the supposed harms of conservative media outlets. This isn’t altogether unsurprising: if you believe that other people’s views are outside the bounds of civil debate, then you have to believe that any reasonable person will agree with you on everything.
I don’t know if there’s a single driver for this attitude, but it certainly has the effect of vilifying and patronizing those with different outlooks. If you don’t believe there’s a factual basis for someone to hold a view, they either have to be a liar or a moron to disagree with you.
This is why I always land on the side of free speech: it’s the vehicle to express your views, challenge the views of others, and hear perspectives that challenge your views. Anyone who believes their views should not have to withstand the scrutiny free speech brings clearly doesn’t believe they’ll be able to.
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