Why My Opinion Makes Sense And Yours Seems Totally Irrational

The other day I made the mistake of posting something controversial on my personal Facebook wall. I usually don’t, because I have a lot of “friends” on there whose backgrounds, opinions and beliefs are all across the spectrum, and I try not to invite flame wars between them. Most of the stuff I write on this blog doesn’t even make it there. I usually just stick to posting meaningless fluff, like funny articles, random thoughts, or pictures of food.

But I let my guard down. I shared Elizabeth Rawling’s Freshly Pressed blog post “How to be a Christian without being a jerk about it,” and a Facebook friend of mine responded by, well, being a jerk about it (and inadvertently proving Rawling’s point). The comments section quickly devolved into a predominantly one-sided yelling match about faith, science, evolution, hell, monotheism, you name it, complete with ALL-CAPS, as other Facebook friends took turns “poking the bear.” Some even shared sentiments such as “The tone deafness on display here is why I’m no longer a Christian,” to no apparent effect.

Snapshot of a Facebook debate in full swing. (via College Humor)
Snapshot of a Facebook debate in full swing. (via College Humor)

I shouldn’t have let it go on for so long unchecked, but I did for three reasons:

1. It was just so comedically ironic.

2. I barely had a chance to actually go on Facebook during the two days it took to spiral out of control.

3. It was intrinsically interesting to the Communications major in me to observe how it all unfolded.

Eventually it became clear that Absolutely No Good was going to come from the conversation – I even began receiving private messages from concerned Facebook friends about it – so I deleted the thread in entirety.

As I wrestle with how to approach this, try to tease out what I can learn from the whole ordeal, I find myself reflecting on why it even happens in the first place. Why does everything “I” say seem to make sense, and everything “you” say seem so irrational? Why can the simple mention of something like gun rights, gay marriage, or God cause normally reasonable people to instantly resort to ALL CAPS?


There are a few things at work here:

First, confirmation bias means that I will seek out opinions, information and studies that confirm and strengthen the things I am already inclined to believe . And so will you.

Second, I will likewise ignore or filter out opinions and information – no matter how reasonable or credible they may be – that contrast with my views. And so will you.

Third, it’s difficult for me to accept your contrasting opinion or information, because it would call into question a whole array of other beliefs I hold, and I want to keep the feelings of cognitive dissonance – the feeling that results from simultaneously holding incompatible ideas – to a minimum. And so do you.

Finally, my I’ve tied my identity to some of those hot button issues – religion, politics, lots of things that end with -ism – and will react to an attack on my side of the issue as an attack on my identity. And so will you.

For all of these reasons and more, the chances of us being able to have an open-minded, reasonable and rational discussion about controversial topics, meaningful issues, things that are actually important to us, are discouragingly low. The odds are stacked against us. If anything, we are more likely to end up farther apart than when we started.

via xkcd
via xkcd

But, I’m an eternal optimist.

I believe there is a middle way through most arguments.

I believe that we can choose to approach oft-debated subjects with charity and grace rather than with pride and something to prove.

I believe that, if we are aware of the pitfalls of debate as mentioned above, we can grow beyond them.

I believe that the internet can be an ideal place to sincerely seek to understand our Other.

I believe that we can get to the heart of matters with strangers.

…As for friends, I’m still working on that one.

For Further Reading:

The Gospel Of… Hate? – Breaking Moulds

The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational – iO9

An Honest Facebook Political Argument – College Humor

18 thoughts on “Why My Opinion Makes Sense And Yours Seems Totally Irrational

  1. I love your sense of humor about the situation! I treat my Facebook similarly – posting funny images or non-controversial statuses, but I’ve fallen into this trap, too, one too many times and it’s always cost me some “friends.” I say “friends” because they’re just people I used to associate with – we never talk in real life anymore, so are they really friends? And seeing some of their reactions reminds me that life is too short to deal with such negativity. So I just defriend/block as necessary; I prefer my news feed to be as positive as possible at all times. I don’t care if you’re an atheist or a Christian, a democrat or a republican; if you’re respectful and open-minded, well, that’s what counts. I once had a girl, we were actually college roommates for a few years, and I thought fairly close, she defriended me for posting one too many petitions for animal rights. If you’re that offended by my love of animals, which is a big part of who I am, well, that says more about me than you, sister. I’d rather have fewer friends who care about the same things I do, or at least respect me for it. Who aren’t just friends with me to bump up their numbers in some Facebook popularity contest. Also, a lot of people, mostly on Facebook/message boards/forums/comment sections on articles, jump to conclusions and don’t really think before they speak. They use aggression and insults to prove their points. That’s the main reason I spend far more time on blogs these days than anywhere else on the internet, I see far less negativity and more open and intelligent discussion.

  2. I’ve been wrestling with the this concept all week. I even posted a vague thing about “the collective you” because that’s really where the problems start. Individually, we can sort things out. Facebook leads us into the mob mentality and that’s when things get really complicated and controversial. I just recently started a new FB account (the one we’re connected on), after closing down my super old account. I didn’t close it because of conflict that I was involved in, but because I was tired of seeing all the conflicts that others reveled in. I feel better about life when I stay out of internet arguments. 😉 On this new one, I recently unfriended someone who is a fellow blogger because of nonsense they posted. No fuss, just an unfriend.. but it made me think that I might end up closing this page too. There’s a little too much anger in that sphere, and it legitimately frightens me!

    1. Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I enjoyed your post about the collective you – that totally is how it goes. We can have a reasonable discussion, just the two of us, but if I let my people contact your people all hell could break loose…

      I actually ended up un-friending the primary person I referred to in this post, which I kind of felt bad about – I’m not sure why, I had only ever met them in real life once ever, and the majority of things they posted annoyed me, but I felt like deleting them and the thread with no warning or apology was kind of like kicking them out of my dinner party and slamming the door in their face in the middle of an argument. It had to be done, though, for various reasons, and I actually felt like a huge load lifted off my shoulders after doing it.

      It was a stark reminder of the reason I decided to keep my new blog on the low down from my friends and family, though – which you initially encouraged me about (i think that’s how we met!). I’ve gotten a bit careless lately, but this kind of confirmed that I made the right call in that regard.

      Thanks for your comment! The internet is a scary place, be strong! Remember, you have a key advantage: you can breathe fire! 😉

  3. Storytimewithbuffy, I have quit Facebook entirely, prompted by an argument which I provoked by posting something pro-life on my brother’s wall, leading his friends and especially his wife’s friends (who had never met me) to start weighing in with judgmental comments about how judgmental I was… I kept a toe in the water for a while with a separate account with one single friend so I could stay in the loop of my music group, but then I left that music group, got into trouble posting something I shouldn’t have AGAIN, and now have deactivated both accounts.

    You know when you go to close your account they show all your friends’ photos with “Matt will miss you, Chris will miss you, Debbie will miss you”? They don’t. I got a panicked text from my Dad telling me I’d disappeared, and a less panicked one from one friend, and that was it. Instead of 500+ ‘friends’ whose posts mostly made me mad or sad (if anything), I have about four close friends I make a point of keeping up with, and that’s plenty for an introvert like me. And I don’t have all the aggro and angst. Life is much much better this way.

    I am on Twitter now, though.

    1. Yeah, I’ve fantasized about closing my Facebook account – I don’t think I could, though, since it’s still my primary method of keeping in contact with friends from far away (which, speaking as an expat, is a pretty big deal), but keeping up with it feels like a chore. I’ve recently joined Twitter and so far I am enjoying it in comparison (that could be because no one reads my tweets, though, so I am more like a lazy bird twittering away peacefully in the countryside, than an angry bird in the urban jungle…)

  4. I much prefer paragraphs to bullets, but bullets are simply easier this time.

    1) Fuck Facebook.

    2) I know you used the term in single-quotes and I believe you used it appropriately, denoting that Facebook calls them ‘friends’ but they’re more acquaintances than anything else. But the casual use of the term ‘friend’ in this Post-Modern era is something that I find very disturbing. Maybe it was easier to use the term over another or maybe it just sounded nicer; I don’t know why and I don’t care why. What I know is that people call the motel at night looking for their ‘friend’ and when I ask for a last name they can’t provide it because, you know, they just met them a few hours ago. You become friends in a few hours in the middle of a fire fight in Afghanistan or the apocalypse, not at the club.

    3) There is a middle ground in arguments, but more often than not one side is right and the other is wrong. The thing is that arguments aren’t flame wars, they are a meeting of two different beliefs, each backed up by consideration and thought. THAT is an argument, however the term has been conflated with ‘fight’ for so long that people don’t know any better and belief that to argue is to yell, scream and call one another bitch.

    4) One thing I became used to as an undergraduate studying Western Philosophy was three words ‘you are wrong’. When professors said this they weren’t saying that I or any other student was wrong, that there was not some deep-seeded flaw in us, rather that we held the wrong thought or belief. Simply put, there was something wrong in the storage container as opposed to the container itself being wrong. When most people hear ‘you are wrong’ they immediately take it as a personal attack, the deepest and strongest of all judgements, instead of that they merely possess an incorrect belief or idea. This is largely because they do not make a practise of thinking and make a practise of feeling all too much.

    5) It is not possible to have an intellectual discussion with anyone who feels stronger than they think about a given issue. Possessing healthy epistemic humility demands that we accept the possibility that we are wrong about any given issue, whether fundamentally or in the minutia of the details, and so long as those others involved in the discussion believe differently there isn’t going to be much of a discussion. We can’t expect closed minds to come to the table prepared to think. For example, both passionate atheists and passionate theists share this character flaw even though science demands critical thinking and the ability to change one’s mind in the presence of further evidence and Christ never once said to take out one’s brain at the door to faith.

    I understand that all of this may sound odd coming from an artist and especially coming from a poet. However I firmly believe this comes through in my poetry, as my goal is to engender the reader to not just feel but think. We have entirely too much thoughtless feeling in the world and entirely too little considered thinking, something that has always been encouraged in various cultures but something that seems unique in an era where people across the board are thought to be smarter. We can’t be better people whilst being Post-Modern.

    1. 1. Hahaha, yeah.
      2. I used “friends” in quotes because they range from distant acquaintances to close friends and even family. But I get what you mean.
      3. I think I have to take issue with this point, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the case in most arguments that one side is right and the other is wrong. It certainly is true when dealing with matters of clear facts, “the earth is flat” “no it’s not” but more often than not things that are hotly debated are much more complex, and often, particularly when it comes to things like religion or politics, personal. I find, rather than right/wrong, the problem more often becomes about people talking past one another, getting sidetracked or latching onto fallacies of argument. This is why I think trying to find a “middle way” through the argument is so important – not to say “you’re both right, let’s all hug” but to say “let’s take a step back from this, find out what we can learn from each other’s perspectives, how we can grow and change and what preconceptions we should be challenging in ourselves.” In short, conflict can make us better people if we approach it maturely and humbly (which unfortunately I don’t think most internet debater hobbyists have much interest in doing).
      4. Interesting, I don’t remember hearing this phrase much in my PHIL classes, it was much more about figuring out how to think than what to think. But maybe we’re talking about different things. Most of the core philosophers of the Western tradition will readily admit they know very little, if anything at all 😉
      5. I couldn’t agree more, and I love the way you put that!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, cheers! 🙂

      1. You bring up a fair point. It was a bridge too far to contend that ‘most arguments’ contain a right and a wrong side. At best, perhaps, both sides have solid points that can lead to a right side coming out of the discussion -if a discussion is to be had. I’m certainly not immune from letting anger cloud my judgement and, in this case, it did. Wilfully stupid people offend me on a very deep level and I apologise for the error.

        That said, people often fail at argument and talk past one another. From my experience, it is for the following reasons:
        -too interested in getting their point across instead of participating in discussion;
        -using unclear language;
        -not asking what key terms used by the other participant means;
        -not thinking through their own position;
        -not taking notes to hold onto important points they cannot immediately engage because they should be listening to the other participant;
        -holding the belief that their being right is more important than furthering truth.

        These are just the most common things I’ve noticed an it all comes from a combination of a poor education and refusing to think. The American education system is, for the most part, a resounding failure. After all, the culture we have here is both informed by and a product of said education.

        The two most important topics of conversation are politics and religion, our physics and metaphysics as it were, because they are so deeply and inextricably intermingled and inform every aspect of our lives. People take these things to heart before their heads and it’s just terrible, simply terrible. A poor education and the refusal to think is why we cannot have quality discussions about these important subjects…well, that and the idiotic notion that there are things that can’t or shouldn’t be talked about.

        I understand that saying this is likely to make me seem remarkably arrogant but it is what it is, I’ve thought about this a great deal from my years as an undergraduate to now. My commentary is not just critical but scathing because it seems to me that the situation is that bad and refusing to respect just how bad the situation is will only make fixing it that much more difficult. This is, of course, pulling to the side of the points you were trying to make so I’d like to end this line of discussion here. I don’t want to side-track your post. ^^

  5. Facebook is ridiculous. I’m working up the nerve to delete my account. I try not to post things that might offend/upset other people, but I find that they’re happy to plaster my feed with things that offend/upset me. And to what end? There will never be intelligent conversation on facebook. It’s not a place for deep, world-changing discussions. I’ve also begun to wonder how many of my “friends” are actually my friends on it. I find that I tend to roll my eyes at the pointless status updates and selfies. One day I’ll get the courage. Until then, I try not to look at it too much.

    1. Yeah… I don’t think I could delete my account, because there are people on there I genuinely do want to keep in touch with, but as a medium it really does lend itself more to narcissism and voyeurism than to authentic relationships. You can always just become a Facebook hermit and keep the engagement to a bare minimum…

  6. Thanks for posting about this! I totally expected more of this kind of fighting in my comments section and was pleasantly suprised that there was little of this kind of, um, “discussion.” I def had a few people shout Bible verses at me and got a good deal of the super-condescending “I’ll pray that you see the light,” but not as much as I thought. It is interesting to me that people would rather take up their argument with the person who posted it on FB than with the author (not that I’m hoping for an arguement, I’m am a peacemaker by nature).
    This is why having important conversations is best had in relationship (said by the woman who just broadcasts her thoughts to the internet, with which I have quite the love/hate relationship). In theory, anyway, if we really listen with love in our hearts we will come to some kind of understanding.
    I also wonder how much of a role a person’s ability to empathize plays into discussions like this. When you don’t have the gift of empathy, it is so incredibly hard to put yourself in someone elses shoes to try and understand why he or she might not believe in God, or to imagine what it would be like to be told that your love is not okay. I have been encountering more and more people who just lack empathy and am having to learn to understand what that looks like and what it means for relationship.

    1. Hey! No problem, I just wish the people who probably needed to read your post the most had been able to actually listen to the whole, rather than pick on the parts to object to. I’m glad you didn’t get too much negative feedback but I suppose it’s a good thing you did get some – it shows it struck a chord with lots of people.

      I think part of the reason people are so eager to take up the argument on Facebook is because of the nature of Facebook in particular. I suspect the primary audience on WordPress are fellow bloggers, who are going to be more likely to respond thoughtfully, even if they disagree, and who are more likely to actually read the article before commenting (I could just be hopelessly naive in this regard, though). On Facebook, though, the audience is everyone, family and friends and acquaintances, and people you know who are strangers to one another and can react to what one another post in the comments. In short, it’s a prime location for a gongshow.

      I really like your comment about empathy, I think that definitely plays a huge role. The more we share experiences with others who are different than ourselves, the better we are able to understand what it might be like to be them. The internet can be a breeding ground for conflict because of the lack of empathy between people who think very differently, but it can also, as you mention, be a place to listen to others and come to deeper understanding of why people hold different perspectives from our own. Anyways, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, and congrats again on an awesome post! 😀

  7. Back when I just got facebook I reveled in making as many sh*tstorm posts as I possibly could. It felt very puppeteer-y cause nobody ever gets mad at you, they just become livid at one another.
    Thing is, that as much as someone’s bias can make them jerks, not having those can put everything people associate their identies with (as you said) into such constant question, that you’d sit with people who are agnostic, people who can’t decide whether the prison system is supposed to be rehabillitating or punitive, people who can’t do any philosophy beyond the most terrifying kind of solipsism, etc. Maybe people will find ways to function while they try to reach a choice, it was just my opinion anyway.

  8. That being a christian without being a jerk about it article was really good. I remember thinking they were gonna have to suffer for it. People just can’t talk about religion because part of the deal seems to be knowing that you are right, as if the very considering that you don’t have all the answers means that you are weak in your faith. A pretty sad situation… At least if people really studied the histories of their own religion and saw how much it had changed over the years then maybe they would be more open to talking about varying view points… Nice article

    1. Yeah, I don’t think that the primary message for most religions is supposed to be “I’m right you’re wrong” but unfortunately through all the noise that’s the message that is often conveyed the most clearly. I do agree that knowing more about the facts of your own religion (and others) can lead to more openness, I suspect that a lot of the angry defensiveness we see comes out of insecurity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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