Advice

WAfyWF: That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Friendly reminder: The question form has been re-opened!

Question: Why don’t people respect each other’s opinions anymore?

What happened to people being respectful enough to accept others point of view/opinions, even though their own point of view/opinion was different?

Answer: Opinions are not inherently worthy of respect, but human beings are.

Well, I’m not convinced humans as a whole were ever really good at “respectful” conversation. Perhaps we’re all more aware of that fact thanks to the miracle of the internet turning the volume up on all our various conflicts since its inception, but I think in general we’re not much better or worse than we ever were before.

Often, when people want you to respect their opinion, what they really want is for you not to confront them with any inconvenient opinions or evidence of your own. Opinions are just perceptions and preferences stated as though they were fact. They are not facts, nor are they sentient beings, therefore, opinions merit consideration, but not necessarily respect. 

Opinions are reflections of our own ego, and we hold them very dear because they are precious to our self perception. Your point of view is just the set of circumstances that brought you to where you are. As intelligent creatures, we are capable of adjusting our points of view to understand and accommodate one another. There is no reason why any of us shouldn’t be required to occasionally adjust our opinion or point of view when presented with new information. And yet, when people question our point of view, we feel outraged, as though they questioned our entire perception of reality. But why shouldn’t they? Their perception may be very different. Our experiences — what kind of family we grew up with, what neighborhood, our social status, race, gender identity — all these different things make up who we think we are. So when someone questions an aspect of that, it can be really challenging. Sometimes it can be fun to disagree with your friends about inconsequential opinions, like which version of Zelda is the best, but when we get to the level of political opinions and deeply held beliefs about the world, these are high stakes conversations. It’s hard to talk about these things without getting angry and defensive on a personal level — and that’s true for all of us.

If you want to have a genuine conversation try to humanize the people you’re speaking with, rather than viewing them as ideological enemies. Also, try to enter the conversation with more curiosity than defensiveness. I’ll use myself as an example: To me, it’s clear that we need access to reproductive health care, and abortion needs to be legal, safe, and accessible to all women. But when I was 12, I believed the exact opposite: that abortion was wrong under any but the most extreme circumstances and that the women who had them had only themselves to blame. That was the toxic but deeply held belief that I was given by the church, which was a major part of my identity at that time. So when I have a conversation with someone who believes abortion should be illegal, I try to imagine that part of them is something like twelve-year-old me. I remember the beliefs that I was taught, and I also remember the self-loathing that came with them. I try to practice compassion for that part of myself, and whatever its counterpart is in this other person. 

Opinions and beliefs are intangible things that are malleable for any purpose and easily corrupted. For example, every government ever. No one ever sets out to be the bad guy. We get there out of sheer human stupidity. We always start out with grand ideas, and basically get sidetracked by ego to such an extent that we can conveniently overlook the fact that we’re committing mass oppression … again. That’s what happens when the founders of a new country believe in equality for all people, but they think only white men count as people. Therefore, to question one another’s opinions and perspective is not just a good thing, but it’s essential.

Some people go into every discussion as though it’s a debate, and they intend to win no matter what idiotic tricks they have to play. That would be fine if life were a competitive sport I guess, but at this stage in human history, if we don’t learn to see one another as equals and cooperate like adults, we’re all out of the game. So we must learn to put our egos on hold in order to have meaningful conversations in which we can grow as a human community.

My advice to you is to try a new tactic the next time you’re faced with an uncomfortable difference of opinions. Ask questions. Try: “Can you tell me how you came to believe that?” Or “Was there a particular experience that influenced that belief for you?” And then listen to the answer. Try to fully take in what the other person is saying. You don’t have to agree with them, but you may have just taken your first step toward a meaningful conversation. You now have the opportunity to share your own experiences and perspective to help the other person understand where you’re coming from. If you’re lucky, you may both learn something.

All of this advice so far assumes that all parties to a conversation are engaging in good faith and not just trolling or actively attempting to spread hate. To be clear: No one is required to respect a hateful opinion. If your opinion is that people of a certain race or gender are inherently bad, stupid, or less worthy of respect than yourself, then it’s my opinion that you have internalized some toxic bullshit, and I will do my best to unburden you of those illusions.

If a person clings to a belief, view, or opinion that is demonstrably false or rooted in ignorance or bigotry, I don’t think it’s necessary to respect that opinion. I do think it’s necessary to treat that person with basic human dignity, especially if you want to change their mind. If you are cruel, you will only reinforce their perception that you’re the enemy, and they will never agree with you for that reason alone. So we have to be kind, or at least not unnecessarily brutal. That becomes a lot harder to do when that person’s beliefs are in direct opposition to your own rights or safety. If a person espouses hateful beliefs, we should tell that person why their “opinion” is wrong and prevent them from enacting it as law or otherwise using their “deeply held belief” as a tool for oppression.

Finally, if you have an opinion that others may question, take the time to self-reflect and be very clear with yourself about why you believe that. When you fully understand your own ideas and motivations, it’s much easier to calmly discuss them with others. So really think through the implications of your belief. Consider how it might impact others if your belief were adopted as the norm. Be honest with yourself: Does your opinion benefit you more than others, and are you really giving fair consideration to the experiences of others? So many of us are eager to reach out and change the world, but not enough of us are doing the necessary internal work first. Meditation, journaling, reading, studying — self-improvement is required before we start telling others how to improve themselves.

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