The “why can’t we all just get along” theory of politics

Bari Weiss and Eve Peyser thought they would hate each other and are now friends. I’m glad they’re happy, but I’m not sure what the rest of us are supposed to learn from their experience.

Weiss is a staff editor/writer at the New York Times opinion section, where she’s developed a reputation for making arguments that maximally annoy the online left (example headlines: “We’re All Fascists Now”; “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation”; “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”). Charitably, she’s a provocateur; less charitably, she’s a troll with a huge platform.

Peyser, on the other hand, is a reliably left-of-center writer at Vice. Weiss describes her as “like the caricature of the person I know hates me on the internet: Gawker Media alum, probable Democratic Socialists of America member, many tattoos.”

So, naturally, they met up. Weiss insisted on going swimming so that Peyser wouldn’t wear a wire, a very normal precaution. And — surprise, surprise — they got along. Swimmingly, one might even add!

The piece, published in the New York Times and structured as a conversation, is ultimately about the deleterious consequences of Twitter on interpersonal relationships — how it can create enmity and contempt where none would exist in person. So the authors would probably view the hostile response the article has received in some corners of Twitter as evidence for their thesis.

The piece’s critics make some good substantive points: Journalists are supposed to be able to build productive relationships with a wide range of people; Peyser and Weiss are actually quite similar to each other and even agree on most of the topics they discussed; the piece treats disagreements on issues that matter as peripheral to whether you’re a good person or not.

But I want to make a much simpler point: You do not have to do this. You do not have some kind of civic duty to reach out to and actively befriend people you disagree with, and doing so is a very high-cost and ineffective way to address political polarization.

The undercurrent driving the Weiss/Peyser team-up is that what they’re doing is, in some way, a model for how we all should be behaving. Their piece ends with an ask from the Times: “Maybe you have a political nemesis whom you subtweet.… If so, we’ve got a challenge for you: Invite that person to have a beer or coffee, or join you in a FaceTime chat. Tell us how it went.”

That goes quite beyond what even Weiss and Peyser themselves are arguing. If they want to be friends, fine, do your thing. But the Times op-ed page as a whole appears to believe this is something you — not journalists but you, the reader, average person — should be doing, part and parcel of good citizenship.

This notion has spread widely since Trump’s election: that Americans just don’t talk to each other enough, that we need to build friendships that reach across our personal info bubbles if America is ever going to heal. You see this in Mark Duplass’s abortive attempt to build bridges with right-wing polemicist Ben Shapiro. You see it in the group Better Angels, which aims to “reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together.” The group holds workshops that function as scaled-up versions of the Peyser/Weiss meeting, and it’s gotten copious press coverage for its efforts, including a whole David Brooks column.

For journalists, understanding what other people are thinking and why is part of the job. For average citizens and voters, it’s another burden to add to the list after work, schlepping the kids to and from school, taking care of elderly family members, and attending PTA and church/synagogue/mosque meetings, etc.

What the call for cross-partisan friendships asks people to do, essentially, is to make an altruistic sacrifice of time, perhaps money, and definitely emotional energy, in an attempt to heal our politics.

But if we’re going to make that ask, we should be pretty confident that good things will come of it, because the cost is not trivial. And there is no good evidence, to the best of my knowledge, that these efforts are effective at scale.

Befriending people you disagree with isn’t cost-free

It would be one thing if this attempt at depolarization were an attempt to persuade participants of certain specific, socially beneficial beliefs. Insofar as individual beliefs are deforming our politics, the beliefs that do so the worst involve bigotry — especially, in the American case, racist sentiment. There’s a role for small-scale persuasion in trying to reduce prejudice, as well as large-scale structural changes.

But the “can’t we all get along” gambit of Better Angels and the NYT op-ed page isn’t that. This is a small-scale attempt to make people nicer to each other, with a hope that this will somehow improve political outcomes in the United States.

And that can be a big ask. Asking a Muslim mother to sit and listen patiently as a white Trump voter explained why the “Muslim ban” appealed to him — that’s not a trivial request.

It’s not clear to me what exactly that conversation is accomplishing. The Muslim mom knows there are people who hate her and her family. She doesn’t need to be reminded face to face. She isn’t learning anything. And when the goal of the conversation is “depolarization,” not prejudice reduction, it’s far from clear that her white interlocutor will emerge with less socially deleterious views either. There’s some evidence that contact with people from a vulnerable group can reduce prejudice against that group — but notably, a recent meta-analysis concluded that the effects are weakest for racial prejudice, and the evidence sparsest when it comes to adults.

There’s also some reason to think that interventions like this, in certain circumstances, could do harm. In a wonderful paper, evocatively titled “When Going Along Gets You Nowhere and the Upside of Conflict Behaviors,” the psychologists Mina Cikara and Elizabeth Levy Paluck argued that promoting cooperation and avoiding social conflict can backfire — and promoting conflict between groups can, on occasion, bring positive change. The authors write, citing this study:

For example, an intervention, in which low-power groups (i.e., Mexican immigrants, Palestinians) were able to voice their grievances to the high-power group (i.e., White Americans, Israelis), and in which the high-power group had to take their low-power perspective, resulted in more positive regard between the groups compared to when grievances were not voiced or heard.

It seems plausible to me that Twitter could serve a purpose like that. From its very inception in the late 2000s, Twitter was massively appealing to journalists and had a disproportionately large and influential black community. This happened, probably not coincidentally, after a large “white flight” of wealthier white users from MySpace to Facebook. And it pushed white journalists into contact with black voices in a way that they (we) hadn’t been before. It was a more even playing field, where a group with less power had the same claim to a voice as a group with more power. If we should expect that forcing high-power groups to hear the perspectives of low-power groups promotes tolerance, on net, then maybe we should expect that on Twitter too.

That’s not to say Twitter is perfect; using it makes me wildly unhappy much of the time. But it does make me wonder if the Weiss/Peyser hypothesis, that Twitter prevents us from listening to each other and we should really just try to get along as people outside it, is right. And if we’re not sure that hypothesis is right, then asking that people bear significant personal costs to reach out and befriend their political enemies starts to make less sense. That goes not just for takesters but for politicians like Barack Obama, who often emphasize the value of civil discussion and collaboration ahead of heated disagreement and confrontation. We need both.

We have a tendency, as a culture, to equate morality with bearing a heavy burden. Actually running and operating an orphanage and taking care of orphans day to day looks more saintly than funding 15 orphanages while living in a mansion does. And this kind of reasoning makes for effective, click-friendly articles. “Befriend people you disagree with” seems like the kind of thing you should do but is something you probably resist doing for one reason or another (it’s hard, it’s unpleasant, etc.). That tension, between duty and revulsion, has the makings of good content.

But I don’t think it makes for good moral reasoning. If you want to heal America, donate to and vote for candidates you think can do that. Give cash to poor people in the US, or people working to reduce prejudice. Do what you feel you can. But don’t let anyone guilt you into befriending people you don’t actually want to befriend. Don’t force yourself to listen to people spouting hate against you and your family in the name of civil comity. Life is too short, and the costs are real.


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