Have you begun to feel recently that people seem hellbent on seeking out disagreement and conflict for the sake of being at polar opposite ends of an argument?
For some time now, and certainly since a pandemic which seemed singularly adept in its ability to create division and discord, you might be forgiven for thinking that finding common ground with others has become a huge challenge.
Look on the myriad social media channels – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al – and you’ll find a whole community of users who appear to be just spoiling for a fight.
Just this week, a post about the return of the Formula 1 season, the new series of Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime and the new Brexit-flavoured debate over the Northern Ireland protocol – to name but three – have had the Twitterati reaching for their keyboards in a fit of apoplectic rage.
It’s hardly any wonder, then, that many people feel like it’s impossible for anyone to agree on anything anymore.
Those same people, then, would probably be very surprised to find out that the psychological truth in our society is that, broadly speaking, most people agree on most things.
Generally speaking, and certainly on the Big Picture things that really matter to the fabric of the society we inhabit, we find common ground. Most of us, for example, agree the war in Ukraine is wrong. Most of us agree that a modern global economy should not tolerate starvation. Most of us agree that climate change is a bad thing.
And most of us agree that skin colour, age, sex, gender identity, religion, sexuality, class and education should not be benchmarks against which someone’s purpose and value in life should be measured.
But even in agreement there are challenges.
We argue over the detail of exactly how these and other issues should be addressed and resolved; we disagree over the extent to which some of these issues might be a problem; and we disagree over where they might sit on an ever-lengthening list of social priorities.
The disconnect that often punctuates the narrative around ‘touchy’ subjects can be both blessing and curse.
Debate, especially when it’s educative, can help to refine and shape solutions to be more effective and impactful. Equally, when it is unconstrained, it can fuel inertia and stasis. It is this perceived lack of momentum and urgency that is often at the centre of the day-to-day conflict we see spilling into our social media feeds.
So it’s important that we hold onto the positive truth that is often obscured by the salty exchanges we may experience or witness: humans are social creatures and have a natural tendency to seek out and connect with others who share similar beliefs and values.
It is this social need for synergy that ultimately leads to the formation of social groups and communities that are based on shared interests, experiences, and perspectives – whether that’s to do with entertainment or equality, or anything in between.
So, where can we find the constructive, positive, and productive ground that leads to seismic, society-altering change?
Here are just a few thoughts on that:
- Shared human experience: there are certain universal experiences and needs that most people can relate to. For example, most people value health, safety, and security. They want to be loved and respected, and they seek to find meaning and purpose in their lives. These shared experiences and needs can help to create a sense of common ground and an understanding between people of what ‘good’ looks like, even when they come from different backgrounds or hold different beliefs.
- Political and social stimulus: we are all influenced by similar cultural, social, and political forces. For example, we are all exposed to broadly the same or similar sources of news media, entertainment, and educational systems. We live in broadly the same physical environment, and we are subject to broadly the same laws and regulations. These factors can help to shape our beliefs and opinions in similar ways, leading to a greater degree of agreement on many issues that otherwise prove divisive.
- Diversity of agreement: even within a particular community or social group, there is room for a wide range of opinions and beliefs on certain issues – and it’s important that we all approach action in a spirit of learning. When we can understand that it’s possible for our shared experiences to be common yet intrinsically different, we create the space to educate the debate and, therefore, the solutions.
- Collective energy: while there may be some level of agreement on the importance of certain values or principles, the failure to act is often down not to apathy, but the failure to harness the appetite and hunger that exists to drive change.
- Embrace disagreement: It is all but impossible to build a more cohesive and just society when we flatly refused to acknowledge, accept, respect and address areas of disagreement. This only serves to breed obstinacy and single-mindedness. Not all disagreement is born equal. Some opinion may be unhelpful, but far more will be valid to one degree or another – and it is in embracing those nuances that agreement and solutions may be found.
No argument is simple.
And whilst psychology dictates that we are far more likely to be aligned as a society, arguments – especially on the big issues in life – are almost always complex.
By recognising the areas of both agreement and disagreement we can build a more cohesive and just society that reflects the diversity and complexity of our shared human experience.