Columns, Opinion

Political stagnation, learning from rats

(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – After the last political cycle, it is very apparent to anyone that isn’t hiding under a rock that the political atmosphere has stagnated due to polarization. A 2015 study from the University of San Diego found 46 percent of Americans identify themselves as “strongly Republican” or “strongly Democrat.” In 1989, only about 30 percent of Americans identify strongly to their political beliefs. Meaning, over the years, politics in America has moved further away from the middle aisle.

With an increase in polarization, it seems that civil discussion has vanished and left only uncivil discourse in its wake. What can be done to fix or revive civil public discussion? How can an average person have a political debate that produces meaningful change? Those questions will be answered, but first one must know why civil discussion died off in the first place.

The death of civil discussion is straightforward to understand. Its death can be attributed to social media expansion and by people being aggressive when arguing their ideas. Social media and its increase in use over the years has let Americans argue their beliefs anytime, anywhere.

However, that doesn’t mean the arguments are helpful. This is because online comments “are extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything” said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Social media tends to make the debate turn south rather quickly. When that happens, most people are rightfully turned off from the topic at hand. A research team at Harvard University found this to be true.

The study examined the bias of people and what happens when their ideas are attacked. The research team found that when a person’s opinion is aggressively challenged that person’s opinion becomes more radical. The study concluded that how someone is arguing is more crucial than the argument itself.

So, how does one change someone’s mind but not alienate the opponent’s idea and shutting down the debate? Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson believes he has found the answer.

In his recent book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” Peterson points out that people’s desire to win an argument and not change someone’s mind is the problem. He explains this desire to win creates a social atmosphere in which people are not willing to debate and change their stance. People don’t want to risk being wrong; they don’t want to lose. He came to this conclusion by comparing this issue to a behavioral study on rats.

The study he is referencing examined the dynamics of rats play fighting when one rat is bigger and the other smaller. The small rat starts playing with the big rat. Because one rat is bigger, it is easier for it to win. However, while the big rat can win every time it plays with the smaller one, it doesn’t. Why is that?

Peterson explains that if the big rat didn’t let the small rat win at least 30 percent of the time, the small rat would no longer play with the bigger rat. Peterson concludes the processes of rats can be applied similarly to humans. He believes that since people refuse to let their opponent be right or “win” some of the time, intellectual “play” has stopped.

Keeping both studies in mind, a solution to political stagnation can be found. A person who wants a quality discussion must let their opponent win from time to time. Meaning when debating an idea, a person must not be overly aggressive and concede to their opponents’ points when they make sense. Doing both of those things will create an atmosphere that is challenging for both people and offers quality political civil discussion.

For political stagnation to disappear, people need to change their ways of discussing discussion. Understanding that aggressive behavior does nothing for a conversation is an essential virtue in debate. Also, learning from rats is vital if society has a desire to ensure there is an ongoing discussion. While all ideas are not of equal value, all ideas must be dealt with carefully and respectfully if a civil discussion is to return to the states. Because remember, we are all American after all.

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