In an age of growing tension and divide in America, two Oklahoma State professors are investigating how to hold better discussions between those who disagree socially, politically and morally.
No matter the outcome of Tuesday's election, philosophy professors Scott Gelfand and Shannon Spaulding, through their work, are trying to show that many Americans who disagree are not ‘moral monsters.’
Spaulding, whose focus is in philosophy and social cognition, said she believes the biggest impediment to having respectful political discussions is a fear of being seen as naive or close-minded.
“I think it’s exhausting to engage thoughtfully with someone and at the same time monitor others for signs of disapproval,” Spaulding said. “This is amplified in social media settings. It’s much easier to not say anything or just surround yourself with people who agree with you so you don’t have to filter what you say.”
Gelfand, who is exploring writing a book on whether Americans are as divided morally and ethically as many believe, voted for the first time in the ‘70s. He said he kept up with politics since and he has ‘never seen it this bad.’
“When I grew up, my parents would invite friends and family over for dinner and there would be Republicans and Democrats and they would really argue,” Gelfand said. “But, while they were arguing they would be laughing and calling each other names and their friendships maintained.
"Now, it seems as though not only do people not trust the other side, that’s bad enough, but it’s getting to the point where people have no respect for people on the other side.”
The two professors hosted a talk over Zoom to discuss with students the importance of finding common ground. Moderator and philosophy professor, Daniel Trippett, said the talk was important for students to understand the value in having constructive conversations with those on the other side.
“College students are often still trying to figure out exactly where they stand on controversial issues and having talks like this, which gives students strategies on how to have these difficult types of conversations, are extremely useful,” Trippett said. “If done in a caring and thoughtful way, both parties can enhance their understanding of the issues.”
Another barricade in having these moral discussions, Gelfand said, is people often struggle to agree on the facts of a topic.
“If we can’t agree on facts, it’s even going to be more difficult to agree on things pertaining to value, where you can’t find a right answer anywhere,” Gelfand said.
The take-home message of the talk, Spaulding said, is when deciding to engage in a difficult moral discussion, it’s important to figure out the goal of the conversation.
“Are you trying to change someone’s mind?,” Spaulding said. “Humanize a perspective so it’s not so easy for the other person to dismiss the other side? Explain why you see things differently?”
To avoid being over simplistic, not every moral issue can be solved by getting the facts straight and setting a goal. Spaulding said she recognizes some conversations are not worth having because ‘some opinions are so profoundly misinformed and misguided that it is simply not worth dignifying with a thoughtful discussion.”
Spaulding and Gelfand said they believe such extreme opinions might be more far between than some think.
A student at the talk asked the pair for their thoughts on the impact social media and the internet have on the issue.
"I find that it allows more people to seek out information that confirms their own opinions and create their own echo chambers," the student said.
In preparation for the results of the upcoming election and the many difficult conversations that will follow, Spaulding said face-to-face conversations, even if over Zoom or FaceTime, are needed to avoid 'doom-scrolling' online.
“Have real conversations in which you can express your anxiety, hope, grief, and fear,” Spaulding said. “And then after that, put down your phone and go outside. Go for a walk or run or ride or just sit in a park. It’s amazing how helpful disconnecting from screens and reconnecting to the outdoors can be.”