The Breakdown of Civil Dialogue

By: Eli Saperstein  |  August 29, 2021

By Eli Saperstein, Opinion Editor 

Everyone knows someone who has “that” relative, a self-declared “independent thinker” who has a degree from Facebook U and therefore declares themselves to be an authority. Unfortunately, these so-called independent thinkers tend to listen only to people who think as they do, reinforcing each others’ opinions, cementing vague theories, which becomes the only worldview they and their peers will accept. When the government asks these individuals to “listen to the science” and take the vaccine for their benefit and the country’s benefit, it is comparable to talking to a brick wall. Why is this? Where is the disconnect? Why do “those people,” think that there is a microchip in vaccines? Why is there such hesitancy with this vaccine versus all the vaccines taken every year? The government has tried all kinds of incentives, from offering beer money to lotteries for a million dollars, yet nothing seems to be changing hearts or minds.

What’s strange is that we know people have been taking vaccines for decades without nearly as much resistance as we are seeing now. So what makes this vaccine different from all the other vaccines? Part of the reason for the hesitancy is attributed to the frantic speed with which this vaccine has been developed and rushed into production. The common-sense reason for this is that former President Trump’s operation warp speed was given an unlimited budget, and contracts for hundreds of millions of doses gave companies the financial incentive to get a working vaccine into the arms of everyone as fast as humanly possible. 

Another reason for vaccine hesitancy that is often given is that these “newfangled mRNA technologies” have not yet been proven safe long term, and like everything new, can be a cause for concern. This, however, is only partially true; the groups that are anti-vaxxers appear to be made of groups who have a historic and strong distrust of the government. Upon further analysis, this demographic initially seems to have very little in common. “In one group are those who say they are adamant in their refusal of the coronavirus vaccines; they include a mix of people but tend to be disproportionately white, rural, evangelical Christian, and politically conservative, surveys show. In the other group, they say they are open to getting a shot but have been putting it off or want to wait and see before making a decision. They are a broad range of people but tend to be a more diverse and urban group, including many younger people, Black and Latino Americans, and Democrats.” Very few communities have less in common than these two groups. Those in the rural/white camp have lost faith in government institutions and are more susceptible to conspiracy theories such as QAnon. The fact is, the Covid-19 vaccine was successful in getting its approval for FDA Emergency Use Authorization in record time, using a technology called mRNA. Add to this the pressure from the government threatening the unvaccinated with vaccine passports. This made those who are paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories more susceptible to being convinced that the government was trying to push an agenda. Thus, this became a civil liberties issue instead of a public health matter.

In the face of all this uncertainty and fear, people turn to the familiar and rely on what they and their fellow Facebook graduates already believe; the government is not to be trusted. Anything the government proposes to incentivize people to get the vaccine is useless, as to them, it is viewed as an increasingly desperate ploy to trick them into getting the vaccine. They know that they need to fight against the government and defend their bodily autonomy. The urban/POC (people of color) camp has different reasons for distrusting the government but comes to the same conclusion; “the government isn’t to be trusted.” There are reasons for this, of course. In recent history, the medical field took advantage of these communities and tested medications on unsuspecting members of the POC community. The black community is fearful and will not trust the institutions that harmed them in the past. This has created a lack of trust and a fear that the government is not genuinely looking for the best for its constituents, preventing a successful dialogue from occurring.

What is telling about the current theme of vaccine hesitancy is that even people who have taken the vaccine are concerned about potential consequences. This means that the number of people who are hesitant regarding this vaccine is higher than the number of unvaccinated. One of the driving forces of the vaccination gap is the information gap, which led to many efforts to educate those “anti-vaxxers” who were in reality “just” experiencing vaccine hesitancy. The information these people were giving them was so contradictory to what the government and peers were telling them that they were not to be able to connect and bring themselves to agree with those who are tasked to convince them to take the vaccine. Given a choice between not taking the vaccine based on what they felt they “knew” versus taking the vaccine based on new information that directly contracted much of what they “knew” to be accurate, is it any wonder there was difficulty communicating?  It has only been after efforts were made to bridge the gap in understanding who the government has to convince to take the vaccine that they realized the majority of those who haven’t taken the vaccine are not anti-vaxxers but instead, hesitant people. “About 10 percent of American adults have made it clear in interviews, discussions with family members, and conversations with survey researchers that under certain circumstances, they are open to being convinced to get a vaccine.” This was a significant development and changed how the government designed its interaction efforts. This was only possible because efforts were made to encourage a dialogue, allowing for these insights to be revealed. Sadly, this is not the case for so many other issues that are pretty well established.  There is little effort to reach out across the aisle on “established” matters to those who disagree. There is minimal effort, in general, to reach out to others and try to come to a bipartisan agreement. Instead, the attitude that pervades all of US politicking is one of superiority for one’s own beliefs and frustration, or even hate, directed towards those who disagree.

It wasn’t always like this. What led to the disconnect between the parties? Many factors have caused this rift, but part of it is that “we now have TOO much information.” There is so much information being created for consumption that it is nearly impossible, even for those with full-time jobs dedicated to consuming media, to process what happens daily. The average individual who has responsibilities, whether as a student, a parent, or someone who must work for a living, does not have the luxury to sift through information. Instead, the majority of them see headlines without nuance. In addition to clickbait, people are radicalized by the lack of nuance as they only consume the most toxic information that is only somewhat reflective of reality. Along with most people who associate with each other in echo chambers, this idea is quickly taught not to give “the other side” the benefit of the doubt. This destroys any incentive to have a dialogue with those who disagree, as not only are they misinformed, but they are actively choosing to keep themselves “on the wrong side.” Society has begun embracing the culture war, pitting neighbor against neighbor, any and every variation of “us vs. them.” The only successful thing that has been accomplished has been ripping the fabric of society apart by creating and escalating the hate and distrust felt for one another. There is minimal incentive to go against the flow and ask why people promote a particular policy or any other political discourse. People are afraid of becoming a pariah in these online but still authentic communities. Some fear losing their jobs or other real-world consequences if they speak their mind or don’t cave into the pressure of performative gestures. It has gotten to the point where people want to be right more than they want to be effective. So rather than having the difficult conversations necessary to improve our society, performative gestures are substituted, which are then condemned (rightfully so) for not doing enough. If people try to question some of the trending ideas, they are threatened with potential consequences by their peers, instead of these individual voices being lifted up for asking questions and trying to do what needs to be done. 

While society is becoming increasingly problematic and even toxic, society can be turned around and become a force for good. We can use the influences of culture to shape our lives for the better. This is why we constantly need to look around at ourselves, our community, and our society and question. To do that, we must embrace the intricate, complex, nuanced thoughts, ideas, and conversations that are largely absent from the mainstream. Specifically, the topics and discussions that are real, meaningful, and, yes, difficult. With people you disagree with, as opposed to talking amongst your peers, who already believe the same or at least similar things as you. Instead, the standard thought process should be: What is really going to help people? Is it the policies my peers are advocating in favor of implementing? Or do I think there is something else that would be more effective and beneficial for society? 

Last year, I created a Whatsapp Chat that will hopefully soon become a club for YU students. The group chat was designed to create a space for everyone from all political affiliations to debate different ideas and discuss current events from diverse political angles. I consider the experiment a success. The group brought together people who might otherwise not have met during the pandemic when YU was entirely online. The greatest success of this experiment was not for the reason I had originally anticipated. I had assumed that this forum would allow for the debate between members of the Republican and Democrat chats to finally interact with each other. While there initially was some debate, the tone of the conversation quickly changed as it became clear that, for the most part, people who initially imagined themselves to be talking about the same topic were, through no fault of their own, relaying different versions of the same event. There was such a vast difference in point of view due to bias and the facts and information presented by the “other side.” Many were not familiar with what was being told to them by their “opponents.” It wasn’t just that the conversation between different parties was limited, but for many, there was so much information that they had never heard before! People realized that the “facts” and information they were using to form their opinions differed from their “opponents”! Some students came to this realization, saying that “we would be debating past each other,” arguing against the strawmen their information and tactics were designed against as opposed to the actual points that were being said. In order to achieve anything, people need to understand what the other person is saying in order to understand the various points of view and underlying facts to formulate an appropriate and constructive response. The nuances need to be made extremely clear, the gray areas colorized. This is the only way to make lasting progress. This cannot be done if people only give credence to dramatically different points of view or base their opinions on different versions of events. 

An example that I often bring up as a success of the chat is what happened after RBG passed.

Republicans and Democrats were in an uproar. Both were appealing to their respective bases in demanding justice, that their objectives regarding the empty seat be met. The Republicans came out in favor of Amy Comey Barret’s nomination. The Democrats came out against the Republicans, saying the President had no right to nominate a judge to the supreme court during the twilight of his term. Both sides were spreading information that supported their “team.” Those who were stuck in their echo chamber were never given the opportunity to see the other side’s viewpoint.  Much of the information was based on the opinions of the leaders of the respective parties. Ranging from high-level democratic officials stating that a president is a president for four years, not three, “The president is elected for four years, not three years, so the power he has in year three continues into year four.” In contrast, Democrats were spreading clips of high-level republicans who denied just that. Lindsey Graham saying: “I want you to use my words against me” was a sound bite that got a lot of play.

The solution going forward is to foster intellectual debate, cultivate a desire to learn from and respect one another, and listen to multiple news networks to diversify information used to form opinions. I believe what needs to be done is to have difficult conversations. Imagine if there was a conversation between the Democratic presidential candidates instead of the fiasco that was the 2020 debates about their vision of what the country could be. The candidate going to the ballot would come in with the premise that they, along with their opponent and their opponent’s supporters, genuinely want what is best for America. Not some cheap stunt meant to score cheap political points and put one person above the other with a “gotcha” question for a sound bite, but something more. Ideally, this would lead to a president who would be elected not just enacting his own party’s predetermined plan but would involve aspects of the other candidates’ plan that were well-liked. To have a successful conversation, this is what the premise must be. That they—like you—want what is best for America. Sadly, that is something that many lack in today’s society. Individuals need to not just communicate their information but be able to articulate their point. How they interpret the information they receive is essential, but an effort needs to be made to understand the others’ premises as well. Once people begin to freely associate with one another ideologically without fear or prejudice, there will be hope for Americans to unite and share in a future where everyone respects, values, and understands one another. However, before there can be a debate, there must first be an understanding and a dialogue between not just the two parties but between every American.