Bruce Abernethy: The Other Side of the Story

Try a new exercise: Seek out someone on the other side who is fair-minded and also willing to learn.

Bruce Abernethy is a member on the Bend City Council and COCC Board of Directors. He’s also a grantwriter for the Bend-La Pine School District.

The lecture could have gone very badly.  My father, a retired Stanford professor of history and political science, was in Egypt as a featured lecturer on a Stanford Alumni Association trip to the Middle East.  His scheduled talk for the evening – “An analysis of Arab-Israeli relations.”  On this particular segment of the trip – on a boat travelling up the Nile - there were about 40 Stanford alumni plus significant others, with a slightly higher percentage of Jewish travelers than in the regular US population.  The captain and all the crew members were Egyptian or otherwise Arab.  Tensions weren’t necessarily running high, but people were very interested in what he was actually going to say to such a diverse audience!

He divided his scheduled hour of speaking into approximately two halves.  For the first half hour, he made the best case and the strongest defense he could in support of Israeli domestic and foreign policy.  He talked about the tragedy of the Holocaust and centuries of European anti-Semitism, a strong Zionist movement with nationalistic and religious drivers that had substantial support from Jews, and an international campaign to generate diplomatic support at the time of Israel’s creation.  For the second half hour, he made the best case and the strongest defense he could in support of the aspirations of the Palestinian people.  He talked about the calamity of massive displacement and ensuing poverty, the taking of land and property without compensation, and pointed out many of the similarities with the early US colonists’ desires to become a free country.  

He told me it was clear as day that no one in the room had ever heard “the other side of the story.”

But how did the audience ultimately react?  Dad was pleased to report that, rather than staying starkly divided in separate camps, people on both sides of the issues actually began having meaningful dialogue and were even able to admit shortcomings in their respective leaders and/or with particular policy decisions.  His key takeaway was that “once people felt heard, they were able, and in some instances willing, to move.”  

A principle worth practicing

That is the way he interacted with people, and that is the way he raised me: “Try to ensure that the other person feels heard.”  There are several “means” to accomplish this “end” of people being heard. Some consciously create “safe spaces.” Others simply try to elect leaders that make it a priority to really listen to and understand the other side of the story. Whatever the approach, I do believe this practice provides a blueprint for how we may be able to begin to address so many of our seemingly intractable issues like population and economic fluctuations, affordable housing/homelessness, racial justice, income inequality, and even immigration.

In this post, I want to not only defend what my father did in Egypt, which is perhaps the most extreme version of making the other person feel heard, but show how this principle—an emphasis on listening—might be able to change the tenor and rhetoric of contemporary debates.  This approach obviously looks different in large public events as opposed to one-on-one or small group discussions, but the principle is the same – at the beginning of a discussion, explicitly and genuinely state the strongest version of the other side’s argument.  

Admittedly, this principle isn’t a novel idea. In fact, it’s even earned a nickname. If someone presents an argument and you disagree with their conclusion, try to “steelman” their argument.  A steelman is the opposite of a strawman–where one claims to make a counterargument that can easily be knocked down.  Steelmanning involves initially joining with the other person and, together, trying to make their argument as strong as it could possibly be: supply additional arguments that they could have used; define terms as they wish.  This way, the discussion starts with the two of you on the same side, sharing the same goal: making their argument as strong as possible.

Steelmanning doesn’t happen on social media.  Case in point, this has certainly never happened on Twitter.  When a reasoned argument does appear on Twitter, is it typically shot down with “Well, what about when your side did this?”  Or it’s just met with an attack on the individual rather than the policy in question.  Or it is assumed that the person has the worst possible motives.  While these responses can be emotionally satisfying to read, they reinforce stereotypes about what sort of people “they” are, and what makes “them” tick as opposed to actually listening and truly understanding a different perspective.

Nor does steelmanning happen on Facebook. On that platform, posts that get circulated are typically the ones about extreme positions—positions that depend on extraordinary factual claims, unusual values or plain old suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, this also perpetuates division by reinforcing the stereotype that the people who disagree with me (“the other side”) hold this extreme and therefore more-easily-refutable position.

It’s no secret that social media was not designed for steelmanning; sadly, nor were many of our other means of communication.  As has been widely noted, the general media landscape tends to foster talking "at" one another rather than the more useful practice of talking "to" one another."  Long gone are the days of Walter Cronkite who was universally respected and believed by Americans across the political spectrum. 

I’ve heard it said that “people nowadays no longer turn to the news to be informed.  They now turn to the(ir) news to be confirmed.”  Throw in the phenomenon of talk shows masked as news programs (think Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow) and the blurring of what is news and what is carefully crafted opinion makes it exponentially more complicated.  From MSNBC on the left to FOX News on the right, we run the risk of being in echo chambers which limit our ability to hear other viewpoints, show empathy, and ultimately find room for compromise.  In fact, the longer we stay in our narrow information bubbles, the easier it is to dismiss other people, making them less human and even turning them into the enemy. 

Steelmanning is more than just an exercise, it’s a means for changing minds and discovering common ground.  I know that at one level, it is stating the obvious that people believe what they believe.  Why people change their beliefs is an incredibly complex issue for another posting (or multiple articles in Psychology Networker magazine), but suffice it to say that some people remain ideologically rigid while others are more willing to go through cognitive dissonance and shift.  For some people, change is initiated by intellectual persuasion (introduction of new facts or a different perspective) while for others it is stimulated by an emotional source.  My point here is simply that we would all benefit if we were willing to be less self-righteous that “we know that we are 100% right and the other side is 100% wrong.”  Steelmanning won’t work for everyone, but it’s worth everyone trying.

A new exercise routine

Like all new exercises, one has to intentionally train and build up endurance.  If we are willing to leave MSNBC and Newsmax behind and purposely read or view news from outside our own echo chamber, the approach I am advocating would require avoiding the knee-jerk response of immediately looking for the flaws in every sentence.  It would require reading or viewing content we disagree with in a different, more sympathetic way.  

And, like all exercises, it won’t be easy, but it’s worth it.  This approach exposes you to new facts and arguments and to the full emotional impact of what “they” are saying, especially if you purposely try to feel the emotions they are feeling.  You learn more if you have to respond to the best possible argument on the other side.  Your conclusion or solution may end up being more nuanced and sophisticated.  How does this approach impact them?  They will feel heard and are more likely (although obviously no guarantee) to respond to your position with greater respect and in a more amicable fashion.  You are no longer the enemy – maybe just somebody with whom they disagree, which in this day and age is a good start!

In order to state the strongest version of the other person’s side of the argument, I have found it helps to talk with an actual person, and, ideally, face-to-face.  In my experience, it is difficult (but not impossible) to do this online.  It is difficult (but not impossible) to do this in reaction to a text with which you disagree.  Seek out someone on the other side who is fair-minded and also willing to learn.

In closing, I want to be clear that I am not naïve enough to think that 100% of people will agree to any given compromise.  But, if done properly, this type of approach can expand our zone of agreement and the likelihood of finding common ground.  Steelmanning significantly enlarges the space in the middle—the space where realistic options can be discussed, tinkered with, and modified.  Equally important, it lessens the magnitude and influence of the extreme hardline positions on the far left and far right, both of which are contributing factors to keeping us gridlocked on so many issues.

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