Want to unite the country? Learn how to argue better.
The USC Dornsife Conceptual Foundations of Conflict Project aims to help people get better at hashing out their differences, using philosophy as a guide. (Image source: iStock/MHJ.)

Want to reduce polarization? Learn how to argue better.

Political polarization has skyrocketed in recent decades while online debate frequently devolves into childish — and sometimes dangerous — personal attacks. USC Dornsife’s Conceptual Foundations of Conflict Project thinks a little philosophy could help us make sense of it all. [4½ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

Political polarization among Americans has been escalating for  a decade. Some 30% of both Democrats and Republicans now hold the view that the opposing party poses a threat to the nation’s very well-being. A divisive 2020 presidential campaign season marked by demonstrations, riots and a storming of the capital building, doesn’t bode well for a future of unity.

According to polling data, Americans don’t like the incivility that has become standard practice in the public square and regard it as a serious erosion of values. Both parties want a president to focus on the needs of the people, even if that means disappointing supporters.

“I think that political polarization is the driving problem of the 21st century because we can’t mobilize resources to solve things like climate change and deal with a pandemic with just 49% or 51% support,” says Mark Schroeder, professor of philosophy and founder of the Conceptual Foundations of Conflict Project at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The project brings together philosophers from a variety of study areas including ethics, epistemology and feminist philosophy to better understand interpersonal conflict. This work could help people get better at hashing out their differences, so that we can debate ideas without devolving into flame wars and fist fights.

A triangular problem

Photo of Mark Schroeder
Mark Schroeder of philosophy explores concepts linked to metaethics. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Schroeder.)

Schroeder is particularly interested in how conflict can arise through how we interpret one another’s intent, meaning or position. One way that misunderstandings can worsen is through “triangulation,” in which two people interpret each other in part through the lens of how they react to a common point of contact.

“If one of the most salient things I know about you is how you react to Trump, the fact that we understand Trump in different ways is going to lead us to misunderstand each other,” says Schroeder. For example, someone opposed to Trump may assume a Trump supporter is against keeping abortion legal, when in fact they may support Roe vs. Wade given that 77% of Americans wish to keep the pro-choice ruling in place.

Another misinterpretation occurs through “over-projecting” or “under-projecting” a person’s agency, his or her ability to act independently. In over-projection, people’s actions are assumed to be entirely up to them.

For example, you may over-project by assuming that a coworker snapping at you is due to a grouchy personality, not hunger. Or that your friend isn’t texting back because they’re uncaring, rather than because their phone died.

In under-projection, a person’s agency is minimized. For example, assuming a high math grade is due to a student’s ethnicity under-projects that student’s abilities and strips the student of an active role in the accomplishment, says Schroeder.

This played out in the political arena in the interpretation of Trump’s Twitter habit. Trump’s frequent, inflammatory tweets inspired anger in the left, who saw them as proof that Trump was vindictive and uncivil.

“[News anchor] Rachel Maddow looks at it and thinks, ‘I can’t make it positive, so I’m going to give him as much agency in this as I can,’” says Schroeder.

Conversely, many on the right played down Trump’s agency.

“A lot of people who support and endorse Trump say, ‘Well, he’s got a big mouth’ or ‘he’s from New York and that’s what you expect from people like that,” says Schroeder.

Thinking critically about how much agency we’re affording people — and whether we alter our view depending on a person’s political party — could dial back animosity and lessen conflict.

Screen time, scream time

Regina Rini, professor of philosophy at York University and a faculty fellow with the Conceptual Foundations of Conflict Project, has been tracking how the internet is affecting our democracy.

Photo of woman with red hair, wearing black glasses and a necklace.
Regina Rini is a faculty fellow with the Conceptual Foundations of Conflict Project. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Schroeder.)

It’s probably no coincidence that polarization has arisen alongside the expansion of the internet into every facet of public discourse. Algorithms now feed people only the news that aligns with their world view, inflammatory headlines and Twitter threads are rewarded with the most engagement (and the most ad dollars), and the impersonal way we communicate is making people disinhibited and less empathetic to the other person in the comments section.

We’ve also spent much of the past year confined to a sort of “digital bunker” as the pandemic has curtailed in-person socializing, forcing people to connect mostly with others online instead of hashing out differences face-to-face. The divisive presidential election and the vastly differing opinions on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic have added fuel to the fire.

Rini’s first tip for those wishing to improve the national dialogue? Delete social media apps from your phone and force yourself to use social media in a web browser instead. At the very least, turn off notifications from news and social media apps.

This can help prevent knee-jerk, emotional reactions to news stories, comments and posts, she says. The effort of simply having to remember your password each time you want to engage may prevent you from picking another fight with that cousin you disagree with on Facebook.

When you do debate online, Rini recommends one mental heuristic: “Imagine you’re having this conversation in front of a 10-year-old and they are learning how to behave from you. If the other person you’re debating is behaving terribly, model how you want a 10-year-old to see someone respond to a terrible person. This might not mean just acceding or saying, ‘Oh, that’s fine, you can say horrible things about me.’ It might mean walking away.”