Online incivility triggered by minor differences of opinion

Someone blow up at you over a disagreement that made a mountain out of a molehill? Tell them to read this article.

What do some people call others who agree with them on all but one matter? An enemy.

While most folks are sufficiently mature to realize that others can disagree with them on one or more issues and still be good people, some close-minded individuals are amazingly intolerant of dissent. You're either an ideological clone, or you're bad. You may be booted off their friend list, blocked, or attacked. In their (small) minds, you're not just wrong, you are often worthy of personal condemnation.

I can tolerate differences of opinion without assailing others because I've been wrong so often on political and social issues. It's not that I am stupid; I just paid too much attention to transistors and not enough to politicians and the media. My big mistake was believing them. I thought our government was imperfect but the best thing since sliced bread, and I enjoyed debating anyone who alleged otherwise. I thought propaganda was what the Russians and other Commies did; our media would never lie, nor would they even distort the truth. Oh, was I gullible!

I was fortunate enough to meet a person with enough patience—and unassailable evidence—to persuade me that I was often dead wrong. She even disabused me of my affinity for Republicans and the black-and-white thinking that distorted my ideological prism enough to keep me from realizing that most Republicans and Democrats are just two wings of the same big government bird. (Note: She is a conservative, yet she loathes most Republicans. Surprised? She also hates Fox News, which deserves some praise but also a whopping dose of condemnation, as I proved.)

not dumb enough to fall for it anymore

I am inclined to agree with a Senator who inadvertently admitted on a hot mic that “It's all rigged. The whole conversation is rigged.” Just like the old-time professional wrestlers who acted out a script and put on a good show of fighting one another, slapping each other around when the cameras were on and slapping each other on the back when they're off. Republican rhetoric usually sounded better, but even when they controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, government never shrank.

Knowing that I could be so wrong so often, I can now disagree with others without questioning their brainpower, sanity, or motives, but ideological tolerance is far from universal. Why do online disagreements often spark anger instead of intelligent debate?

As a doctor, I'd like to put my two cents in. Anger is a byproduct of frustration, and many people are frustrated when they encounter political (or other) opinions they disagree with yet cannot refute. So rather than cogently making their case and possibly persuading those willing to listen, they get mad and perhaps embark on a campaign to get even, especially if they are mentally ill or paid handsomely to smear, à la Media Matters.

People tend to prefer things that are easy, not difficult. Researchers have found that people often think of politics in the same way as they do religion: with convictions that generally are not open to debate. Consequently, persuading others on political matters is often so frustrating that most people shy away from it, gravitating to those who agree with them. Preaching to the choir is not productive, but it certainly is less stressful.

I've changed some of my most strongly held convictions after listening to other viewpoints and considering their merits in light of the evidence, so I know that political debate is not always fruitless.

If someone is really angered by something you said, you might take it as a compliment indicating that you presented your opinion in such a way that countering it is all but impossible. I often elicit extreme reactions from people, because the ones who agree with me love the way I make my case, while the ones who disagree often are so frustrated by their inability to rebut what I said that they resort to ad hominem attacks or character assassination.

Is there a way to amicably resolve such political debates and decide who is right and who is wrong? Yes. I recently posted the first of several articles in which I offer $100,000 to the first person who can prove me wrong. Some of my opinions are bound to ruffle the feathers of those who polarize to the political extremes, but I wouldn't offer such a generous prize unless I had good reason to think that my viewpoint was correct even though it ran against the grain of conventional wisdom. I'll later add many other challenges (& turn them into a book), all of which will make you think, and some of which may anger you. If that is the response I elicit, perhaps I am correct and you are frustrated by your inability to counter what I wrote.

If you disagree with something I wrote, feel free to challenge it. Some of my viewpoints are the antithesis (exact opposite) of what they once were. That isn't flip-flopping; that is changing opinions with scant evidence to support them into convictions with a firmer foundation of facts.

Genius Robert Heinlein said, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.” If you can educate me, I'm all ears.

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”
— Albert Einstein

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
— Albert Einstein

“The ultimate ignorance is the rejection of something you know nothing about and refuse to investigate.”
— Dr. Wayne Dyer

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.”
— General George Patton

“Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

“I am not young enough to know everything.”
— Oscar Wilde

“You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
— Winston Churchill

“Either be super-fake and make believe you're friendly to everybody, or be completely honest.”
— Loren Feldman

“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”
— Euripides, Greek tragic dramatist (484 BC - 406 BC)

“It is socially unacceptable to be right too early.”
— Robert Heinlein

“I'd rather stand alone on the truth than with millions on a lie.”

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

“In heaven all the interesting people are missing.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
— Abraham Lincoln

This reminds me of something stressed by one of my psychology professors, who said that society imposes rigid boundaries for what behavior is acceptable, and applies tremendous pressure trying to force people to conform to the behavioral expectations. Some of the most brilliant and productive outside-the-box thinkers led unconventional lives, as I discussed in an article in which I mentioned how two eminent physicists (Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman) behaved like teenagers in heat, with the latter frequenting strip clubs and befriending porn stars.

Other great thinkers led less salacious lives but were still unconventional in other ways. Had they been pressurized to conform, it may have affected what they did professionally, not just personally. One of the side effects of forcing people to think inside the box is that by lopping off outside-the-box behavior, potentially great outside-the-box ideas are lost, too.

“I have seen great intolerance shown in support of tolerance.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why are good people divided by politics and religion?

The author of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who considered himself a partisan liberal until 2009, provides some illuminating answers bound to disappoint liberals who pat themselves on the back for being superior to conservatives. He said people are not “designed to listen to reason.” Instead, they “reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they've decided. … We're lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we're good at challenging each other's. … [W]e need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person's mind.

Indeed it can. Some of my firmest convictions—ironically, conservative ones—dissolved like an ice cube in a fireplace when I listened to others reason in ways that challenged my beliefs. In spite of that, I don't agree with liberals or conservatives as a group because each side logically errs by assuming they're correct if the other side is wrong. In this case, with common ground being better than what either side can offer, it is clear that when liberals think conservatives are wrong and conservatives think liberals are wrong, they're both correct.

NOTE: The second I completed the paragraph above, my girlfriend, a psychologist who is conservative and Catholic, out of the blue said she thinks there ought to be a book entitled, The Angry Christian. She doesn't think all Christians are angry, but fueled by self-righteousness, too many are.

One of them is my cousin's wife (I'll call her Brenda, not her real name). I've had little contact with her, but at my mother's funeral, she silently looked at me with her face contorted in self-righteous rage. I wondered what on Earth precipitated that, and no matter how justified she thought she was, why she felt that was an appropriate time to add to my anguish. My best guess is that years before I said something complimentary about Brenda to my mother when she and I were alone and Brenda was hundreds of miles away. I never thought my Mom would pass along the compliment, but sure enough she did, which perhaps riled Brenda for reasons known only to her and God.

Discussing how political polarization is dangerous, Professor Haidt said that “people tend to cluster around their moral in-group and view outsiders with only suspicion, not understanding. 'You engage all these tribal moral dynamics.'

TED talk: Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives:

Related articles:

Dr. Lazar Greenfield versus the PC police

Not all liberals want more of your money

Liberals who react, not think, and fall for smears that are obviously untrue

Liberals claim to be more tolerant and civil—but are they?


  1. Anonymity of the Internet educes heightened aggression and verbal abuse by blocking the behavioral inhibition system that regulates behavior: Powerful, Intoxicated, Anonymous: The Paradox of the Disinhibited.
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

Comments (1)

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Comment #115 by Nannette
February 5 2011 12:36:36 PM

As proof of this . . .

As proof of this, if one were asked to list Hitler's good qualities, most people would cringe at the idea. Let's look at the facts: he was a reasonably talented artist, and what he did to restore the German economy was nothing short of miraculous. But he was still Hitler! He was the same man who did other evil deeds that we are well aware of, and that completely overshadowed anything good he did. The point is, once we have somebody on our "enemies" or "bad people" list, who cares if they have any good in them at all? We don't. We see and care about only the evil part or the part that we disagree with.

REPLY FROM DR. PEZZI: If Hitler had done nothing except restore the German economy, he would be widely lauded as an economic genius. If Obama could transform the USA even half as well as Hitler boosted the German economy, even I would vote for him in 2012! Contrary to popular opinion, Hitler's impressive results were not simply a result of the arms buildup he ordered in preparation for war. If it were that simple, any economy could replicate his success by building tanks, planes, ships, and guns, as I discussed in an article.

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