Rules for Change and Tolerance in an Intolerant World

Martin Luther King Jr allegedly had a 25% approval rating around the time he was assassinated. In other words, the majority of America didn’t seem to care for him. He opposed the Vietnam War before it was politically correct to do so. He pushed for desegregation in a time that many others just did not agree. How do we succeed at convincing others something is right, when the majority or a large group feel it is wrong? Shouldn’t the majority who are clearly wrong wake the heck up and realize what they are doing?

Significance of the Majority

In science, new theories are documented and published to convince the community at large to review and accept the theory. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity around 1915, and predicted gravitational waves around that same time. Yet various members of the community disputed his claims for many years. The provable claims were accepted within a few years, but some of his more complex claims couldn’t be immediately proven. In fact, only in 2016 were we able to actually confirm gravitational waves.

In science it is typically easier to convince others because it is based on physical evidence, repeatable trial and error. However, as with the case of gravitational waves, some things are stuck in theory and not easily replicated with physical evidence. In these cases we have to either not care that the majority doesn’t agree, or take responsibility to push for tolerance and understanding.

We cannot think that it’s the majority’s responsibility to try to understand every theory or belief under the sun. There has to be viable reasons to do so and if the conventional way of thinking simply doesn’t support tolerance or understanding, then it just won’t happen unless the minority or those pushing for change explain it.

The Minority is Often Wrong

Although there are a huge amount of cases where the majority is horribly wrong, there are also a huge amount of cases where the minority is horribly wrong. There are those who still believe in sacrificing to the gods, there are those who believe adultery demands death, there are those who believe the earth is flat, some believe that we are descendants of aliens. There is an extensively long list of these odd beliefs that are not the “norm”.

If you happen to believe one of these things (or anything that is out of the norm for that matter), then it is on you to help the majority understand why you are right. It’s not on the majority to seek these random beliefs and try to understand, the majority already has their set of beliefs.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, if you believe in sacrificing squirrels in your back yard then you’re legally allowed to do so (at least here). You don’t have to convince anyone, you can just keep doing your thing. However, if a law was passed making it illegal to kill squirrels and your neighbor reported you to the police, then you’d be responsible for convincing them why it should be ok.

Convincing others

As with talking to a brick wall, convincing others of something they do not agree with is going to be extremely difficult. Confucius was exiled, Jesus was crucified, Socrates was put to death, Galileo jailed for heresy, Gandhi and King assassinated. Various influential people throughout history encountered extreme resistance and tragedy. Their achievements sometimes not recognized until after their death.

Convincing others is not easy, but if we have to try, we have to start by addressing the things that the opposing group disagrees with. It’s the responsibility of whoever owns the theory, whoever is pushing for change. It could also help us not get jailed or worse.

Traditionally those who are arguing for change do not seem to care or even acknowledge the concerns of the opponents. How often do we see a political party trying to address concerns of their opponent? Pick any social movement, and ask ourselves how often do we hear of that movement solving problems of their detractors? How often do we hear an opposing group say “good point”? Just about never.

Whenever we do actually witness change however, it becomes very apparent; to change someone’s view we need to address their concerns. For example, the reddit group “Change My View” pushes for people to state their opinion, while being “open to change”. While plenty people may not actually be open, for those who do change, time and again its because of those who fully address their problems and concerns.

Rules for Change and Tolerance

Let’s stick with the controversial topic of abortion and go through what it would take on each side to either change someone’s view or improve tolerance.

Rule #1. Identify the opposition’s wants and beliefs. We have to actually ask questions and listen. For example, let’s assume pro-life proponents believe that life begins the moment sperm penetrates the egg and any contraception after that point is wrong because it is a human. For pro-choice, let’s assume they believe that certain conditions should allow for the use of contraception even after sperm penetrates the egg. There may be differences, but the point is to get all the details and a holistic understanding of their beliefs.

Rule #2. Find Baseline Agreements. Once we really understand the opposing groups beliefs we can figure out what we agree with. Both pro-choice and pro-life agree that murder and killing people is wrong. Both groups likely agree that having a deformed baby, or having one born of violence, with limited resources and without the father around would suck. While each of these statements go quickly in opposing directions, they start off in a place that we all can agree with. Baseline agreements are important because it is how tolerance starts. It shows both sides that there is at least a starting point to which to have a discussion.

Rule #3. Solve the Opposition’s Problem. Although most people won’t want to do this, it is the best way to gain adoption. By solving the opposition’s problem we often solve our own. Imagine if either the pro-choice or pro-life movement figured out a simple and accessible way for everyone to have choice without abortions. The two opposing views could work together to achieve a unified goal. This is not the equivalent of a compromise. If there is no identifiable way to do this, are we sure we have a valid belief or goal? Are we sure we understand their problem and the baseline agreements?

Rule #4. Take Responsibility, Never Assign It. Notice that, if pro-choice simply focused on “we should have choice”, “you can’t take our rights”, “a child born of rape is horrible”, it will get nowhere with someone pro-life. Similarly, while an embryo being human may be a given to a pro-life person, not likely so for a pro-choice person. Blaming pro-choice for committing mass murder will again get nowhere. If we are pushing for change, it means we are “leading” people to change. The book “Extreme Ownership“, by Jocko Willink talks about this concept and how to lead change, we must take responsibility for any problem that comes our way.

Rule #5. Navigate Morality Without Assuming Righteousness. Depending on where in the spectrum we are, a controversial topic like abortion will have moral questions blurred to some and clear to others. It is extremely difficult to have a moral belief and see others trample on it, or disagree. Ultimately morality makes up who we are in many ways and as such it will feel like we ourselves are being trampled on or invalidated when others disagree. It is our responsibility as the ones who are pushing for understanding to not fall into the trap of getting overly emotional, or pontificating as if we know all things.

Slavery and Morality

To bring home a couple of these rules, let’s use the more unanimous topic of slavery. The majority of people in today’s society would not agree with slavery. Owning a human as property is flat out wrong and could be considered a baseline agreement for just about anyone. However, at some point in most societies across the world, this was not the case. It was often a norm and somehow “made sense”.

If we were an abolitionist anytime before the 1800s, we’d be up against a large list of groups and countries that simply didn’t agree. Should we have blamed and shamed them for being immoral? Sure, now that we “know”, we would arguably be well in our right, but it is tough to find any historical accounts of ancient figures (prior to 1500s) who outright denounced slavery. Why?

The only reasonable conclusion is quite simply that we didn’t as a society or as individuals know better. Maybe education was a major factor, maybe Gutenberg and the “printing press”. Whatever the reason, it took a lot of convincing over years, over wars and still unfortunately to this day it is estimated that there are around 40 million enslaved people in some form around the world.

If we stick to our rules however, that means that even in the times of slavery, abolitionists would be responsible for solving slave owners problems and concerns with anti-slavery; despite it being completely immoral. That would be tough for anyone to handle, but it really does seem to be the most effective way. If everyone disagreed with us, do we really think we’d be able to do so any other way?

Cost of Freedom and Democracy

The unfortunate truth is that we cannot claim to know or be right and as such, we have to convince the majority that it is. We should work to solve the problems of the opposing group and in doing so solve our own. Although something like slavery being immoral is obvious now, it wasn’t the same a thousand years ago. If we were to act righteous and claim to know something while everyone disagreed, how are we to know we are justified? How is that different from the person sacrificing squirrels in their back yard?

What things aren’t obvious now, that could be in the future? If we claim to know now and force our beliefs without tolerance, without understanding and without a genuine attempt to solve opposing problems, we are acting like a righteous dictator. No matter how right we are, or think we are, if we don’t afford everyone that same freedom and tolerance we are no better. If we are backing a movement, if we want change, if we want tolerance, then it is 100% our responsibility to convince others by solving the problems of those who disagree.



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