Last week, Marco Rubio, a United States senator from Florida, found himself in an unfamiliar position. He felt compelled to remind his more senior colleagues in the Senate of the value of rational debate. Word of this didn’t really catch on until The Washington Post, two days later, ran the headline: “Marco Rubio just gave a really important speech—but almost no one paid attention.” As the Post pointed out, Rubio managed a few noteworthy sound bites, one of them being: “I don’t know of a civilization in the history of the world that’s been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of the people in that country.”
Rubio may have had on his mind what happened just a week earlier, at U.C. Berkeley, where a protest to block Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing journalist, from speaking at an event, turned into a dangerous conflagration. The riot seemed to be praised as much as it was reviled. In another, related, sign of the public’s distaste for debate, the American Civil Liberties Union—which has received a hefty amount of donations following the US presidential election—has now come under fire by some of its supporters for its willingness to protect Yiannopoulos’ right to speak freely. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, didn’t hesitate to tell NPR why even hate speech is worth defending (Yiannopoulos has likened feminism to cancer). If we don’t, Rowland said, “the First Amendment is just reduced to a popularity contest and has no meaning.” The Post highlighted another Rubio quote: “We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore.”
“You think they’re idiots. But as soon as you actually give them a voice—you can hear what they have to say.”
This incapability may spring from the fact that it’s easy to make enemies of people we only read about. When we don’t meet or confront people face to face, says Nicholas Epley, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, we don’t get to know them or sense what’s in their mind. “The less we know about the mind of another, the more we use our own to fill in the blanks,” Epley writes in his book Mindwise. Epley has conducted a host of experiments to make his point. “What we found,” he told Nautilus in his Ingenious interview, “was that you tended to dehumanize the other person more when you just read what they had to say … you create a more ambiguous medium of interaction and you tend to evaluate the other person in line with the views that you already have. You think they’re idiots. But as soon as you actually give them a voice—you can hear what they have to say—then we found that people didn’t dehumanize the other side at all. That is, they rated them as just as thoughtful, as intelligent, as a person on their own side who shared the same belief that they did.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.
Lead image: Nicolas Alejandro / Flickr.