I’ve known a lot of people who I thought were bat-crap crazy at first, only to find out later that their weird ideas were actually true- or at least reasonable enough to make them valid. I’ve also seen popularly accepted truths debunked. As someone who’s not naturally empathetic toward others, I’ve always used this tool to help me understand how others think:
The Devil’s Advocate.
It’s a game. I was introduced to it by my sixth grade teacher as a journaling tool. How you play: take an opinion you agree with. Now, pretend you’re opposing that opinion and try to come up with arguments that feel reasonable enough that you could see yourself backing them up. Do some research on what both parties are saying and then sort out what’s fluff and what’s solid. Write a persuasive journal entry countering your own original opinions on the topic.
For instance, I could pick a hot topic like abortion. I’m against abortion. Now my goal is to come up with arguments against myself. I would dig up some statistics about how countries that make abortion easy have lower abortion rates than the US, or how the US crime rate went down in the ’90’s after abortion was legalised in the ’70’s, etc etc. I’d do my best to find solid arguments about how abortion might be good after all. Then I’d write it all up.
Now the point is not to change my mind or to lower my personal set of morals. The point is to gain empathy by seeing the argument through the opposition’s eyes. After reading up on the opposing side of the abortion controversy, I’m still against abortion, BUT, now I understand why some people feel it’s ok, and I can even see that there would be some instances when it might be the right move. My own stance has been enriched and I’m more empathetic toward others.
I’ve been playing Devil’s Advocate for so many years, it’s become my first reaction when I hear a new opinion. Instead of saying, “you’re wrong and you’re stupid for believing that,” I say, “that’s interesting, tell me more, I want do some research about it.” It doesn’t mean I’m about to jump ship on my own opinions and be swayed by every wind of doctrine, it just means I’m giving the other person the dignity of legitimising their feelings.
Most people aren’t crazy. Even when their opinions are completely, totally, sickeningly wrong, there’s still a reason they believe them. Perhaps they had bad data. Maybe they grew up in a household that held strong opinions. There’s got to be a story to why they believe what they do. I’ve found that usually I can trace their logic, even if their info was false, and then I can see where they’re coming from, even if I disagree.
In playing Devil’s Advocate, I’ve also been able to refine and retool my own opinions as I’ve done the research to find what others believe about certain topics. Many of my opinions have mellowed as I’ve accumulated new information. Many of my opinions have changed altogether. Strangely, I feel much more confident in myself since I’ve been able to admit that my own set of opinions are fluid.
It’s humbling to open yourself up to new ideas. It takes a lot of courage to expose yourself to a view you don’t agree with. I think, though, that this might be the ticket to acting civilly toward people we don’t understand. So much of the internet is wasted on people militantly arguing against everything ever posted, pointing out who’s wrong and taking sides on issues where there is no clear answer. We can’t move forward collectively unless we can understand each other.
I dare you to play the Devil’s Advocate against yourself. Pick a hot topic that you have a strong opinion about, research the crap out of it, and then write up a little persuasive argument against your first opinion. Compare notes with yourself afterword and see what you’ve learned and how you feel about the people on both sides of the argument. You’ll likely see the whole topic differently and gain empathy toward those who oppose you.
“Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything.” -Neil Degrasse Tyson