You can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes but still won’t agree

Bridging our political and cultural divides may be harder than we think ‘Putting yourself in the other side’s shoes, it seems, only makes you see them as more unreachably alien.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi/The Guardian It’s the standard view, among psychologists and others, that if we’re to heal our political and cultural divides, we’ll need to […]

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Bridging our political and cultural divides may be harder than we think

Illustration of two figures swapping heads
‘Putting yourself in the other side’s shoes, it seems, only makes you see them as more unreachably alien.’
Illustration: Michele Marconi/The Guardian

It’s the standard view, among psychologists and others, that if we’re to heal our political and cultural divides, we’ll need to get better at seeing the world from the other side’s perspective. (If this weren’t already a cliche, the humorist Jack Handey couldn’t have given us his immortal one-liner: before criticising someone, walk a mile in their shoes; that way, when you criticise them, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.)

But the results of a new American study are slightly worrying. Participants were asked to come up with arguments for positions they disagreed with, a time-honoured experimental tactic for changing people’s minds. But when they were also asked to imagine the thoughts and feelings of their political antagonists, they found those arguments less persuasive. Putting yourself in the other side’s shoes, it seems, only makes you see them as more alien.

A second part of the study helped explain this bizarre finding. It’s not that people are bad at “perspective-taking”, but that they’re really good at it – so good, in fact, that they come to grasp how different the other side’s values really are. It’s tempting to assume that political disputes are a matter of making your opponents “see sense”; if only they could be shown where they’re being irrational, this story goes, we’d soon find common ground.

But that’s often incorrect. Abortion is the classic example, because it’s so stark. Some opponents of abortion are irrational; but the uncomfortable truth for pro-choicers, like me, is that if you start from the foundational value of the pro-life movement – that abortion is a form of murder – much of the rest of their stance follows entirely rationally. Realising this needn’t diminish the vigour with which I oppose them. But it ought to make me see why arguments based on my values might not prove very persuasive.

The striking thing about modern moral debates “is their interminable character”, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre once observed, sounding like a man already sick of Twitter, even though he wrote it in 1981. “I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on – although they do – but also that they apparently can find no terminus.” That’s because we conduct our quarrels, he argued, with two clashing assumptions. We start from certain values we realise we can’t justify, on grounds that everybody would accept. But then we argue as if our opponents might be swayed by rational arguments emerging from those values. They’re not swayed, though; they just respond with rational arguments based on their values, and the merry-go-round spins on.

Philosophers, including Macintyre, have proposed various paths out of this quagmire. But the immediate practical point is that we should stop assuming the other side is being either illogical, insincere, or both. Sometimes, they just have different values; though you don’t need to indulge those values, you’ll get nowhere by pretending they’re not really there.

Since we’re on the topic of people who trigger partisan anger, it seems apt to close with a quote from Tony Blair, in response to a colleague who asked if he’d drop the New Labour rebranding now that he’d been elected: “It’s worse than you think: I really do believe in it.”

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