Recognising and dealing with the spectrum of opinion

It was a bit of revelatory moment for me when I realised that most political and religious movements, or even people on the different sides of social issues, are comprised of a spectrum of opinion. In almost all cases there are the hardcore/extremists at one end of the spectrum and the moderates at the other, with a wide range of opinions in between. Seeing things that way helped me to avoid dismissing the people on the 'other side of the isle,' as all being raving lunatics or unswayable hard liners. It's healthy to remember that, for every person with extreme views, there are probably a dozen or more moderates who might come close to agreeing with me or at least recognising my stance as reasonable.

There are a few disadvantages to the spectrum of opinion, especially when it is on your own side of the debate. You might hold measured views but, seemingly, there will always be someone who exists, ostensibly under the same label as you, who is extreme either in words or in actions. How do you reign in those people and is it the responsibility of moderates on any side to control the wilder aspects of their movement? (I've heard it being said that it is.)

Also, how do you counter the fact that people on the other side of any issue can score cheap points by pointing to the most unreasonable people representing your view point and claiming that they represent everyone on your side of the divide?

Or, if everyone on your side of an issue is not doing what it takes to effect change, how do you fire them up?

Well, the traditional method is balkanization, People's Front of Judea style. Groups tend to grow and then split off into more specific subgroups, often defined more by the other subgroups of the original than they were by the aims of the original supergroup. Unless, there is power in the original group of course, then they tend to stick around, which is why you have the Brownite and Blairite effect.

A lot of problems come from the "sports team" attitude to politics, where people self-identify with a party, and feel they have to support that party, rather than identifying that they themselves have a set of preferences / beliefs which can be partially aligned with more than one party. Love of labels cause a lot of strife.

Interesting. I hadn't considered the splinter groups to be a part of this but, of course, they are.

DudleySmith wrote:

A lot of problems come from the "sports team" attitude to politics, where people self-identify with a party, and feel they have to support that party, rather than identifying that they themselves have a set of preferences / beliefs which can be partially aligned with more than one party. Love of labels cause a lot of strife.

I totally agree. With an essentially two-party political system people feel like, in order to preserve their identity and most important personal agenda within one party, they should promote all of the agendas of that group no matter how wildly diverse. If you strip out the politics, its hard to imagine many people feeling exactly the same way about such different topics as gun control, abortion, economic & foreign policy, the health care system, and the environment.

I think if people were more honest about their own opinions, if the ideology filter could be removed, we could have more interesting and valuable discussions about individual topics from all sides. It's not very illuminating to read a politically slanted message topic where the arguments are pre-made along political lines.

Running Man wrote:

I think if people were more honest about their own opinions, if the ideology filter could be removed, we could have more interesting and valuable discussions about individual topics from all sides. It's not very illuminating to read a politically slanted message topic where the arguments are pre-made along political lines.

It's definitely outside of politics, too. The whole feeling for many people seems to be that everything runs on a zero sum: if you're right, then I am wrong, and we can't have that.

In my limited success in getting people to crawl out of that sort of thinking, you have to focus on how people think in ways that are alike. Going back to politics, as backwards as it sounds, I've found it's better to focus on a person. Not "the collection of stereotypes and opinions we have labeled as this person" but actually trying to get people to see their supposed opposition as human beings. It's easy to villify someone as this evil person who wants to destroy America or subvert morality or whatever when they're just a walking straw man. But when you get someone to stop and think about them as a complete person - like we've seen where some rabidly anti-gay folks have found their children or friends were homosexual and change their minds - it has a profound effect. Not only does it help people break down the issues a little better, but it also disarms the bit mentioned above about radical and/or idiotic members of your 'group' being used against you specifically*.

In general, if you can convince yourself or others to examine honestly the "why" behind someone's beliefs, that helps. People tend to pre-suppose that someone believes or supports X because they're selfish, uninformed, or whatever. While that may end up being true in the final analysis, it's not a productive place to start from. It's better to show someone where their good intentions or positive beliefs are becoming hateful or wrong or misguided.

Anyway this is a little rambly but I spend a bit of time thinking about this. Empathy is really at a premium these days and I'm constantly trying to think of the best way to put that into words.

(*there's limits to that, of course. If you are proudly proclaiming your political party allegiance, I think it's fair game to be expected to answer for why you're okay with what your party does)

I had a discussion with friend of mine, an ex-Army officer and life-long conservative, and I gently brought up the fact that he's been re-posting (and posting) vicious attacks on liberals for years on his Facebook site. I suggested that if he felt that way, he's got a problem with me. But he could not see it. The idea that I might take offense at his postings about libtards and "typical liberal thinking" extreme caricatures and the like was inconceivable. I honestly think he surrounds himself with that stuff all the time, and considers it normal, inoffensive speech.

I grew up with this guy and have tremendous respect for him, but he can't understand the personal effect of his political speech. He just doesn't see a problem and the suggestion that it could be taken that way seemed to deeply offend him.

This is so different from the way the US was into the 80's that I'm still astounded by the change in tone (much less that it's attached to actual substance). I'm starting to think we're seeing the rise of another incredibly self-destructive political movement, on a par with the great idealistic mistakes of the past.

I find that kind of attitude and language very worrying. It's the kind of propaganda you see in wars and, to me, it dehumanising whole swaths of people and leaves them open to attack.