Deliberation and Exposure to Differences: The Importance of “Hearing the Other Side”

The below is adapted from my book on deliberative communication. A full citation appears on the “deliberation issues” page.

One of the key issues for the news media, either print or broadcast, with respect to its contribution to deliberation is its ability to expose people to the other side of a conflict. This is an essential component of any conflict-resolving endeavor on the part of the media. Ethnopolitical conflicts face the problem of cognitive and moral differences that emerge from different conceptual frameworks used by different cultural groups. These differences can undermine the possibility of finding common ground. It is true that different conceptual frameworks surface from a lack of common ground and the different moral and cognitive grounds are greatest between groups with the greatest cultural and political differences. But the first requirement for invigorating the discourse of opposing views is exposure to the other side, or exposure to disagreement. The media in a conflict can play a particularly important role in exposing one party to the arguments, perspectives, and emotions of the other side.

Exposure to conflicting groups with different political and conceptual moral domains is the essence of the media’s role in the deliberative and democratic process. It is the media’s most fundamental contribution to conflict resolution. Peace and conflict resolution does not depend on similarity among conflicting parties because such a condition will never be met. Rather, the ability to create meaningful discourse between divergent groups is most important. The psychological tendency to balkanize and polarize ourselves is powerful and has become a concern to conflict specialists as a result of increasing tendencies toward emphasizing differences and distinctions. The press has been increasingly remiss at stimulating significant discussion across differences and people retreat into media enclaves and are exposed to different political discourse. In general, as Mutz (2006) reports, exposure to divergent opinions is a positive quality of democratic values because it helps people understand the arguments and rationales for those who think differently. And democratic values are even more encouraged when people actually reach across differences and try to engage others. True, that engaging those who are different than us can be dangerous and risk termination of the relationship, but the rewards are considerable if the risk is overcome. The elite press in particular must confront the effects of fewer opportunities to learn about others by making conflicting discourses available to its audience.

Hearing the other side, which makes one aware of legitimate and defensible arguments from the other side, also improves tolerance for differences. The ability to see more than one side of an issue translates into tolerance because recognition of a defensible argument makes it easier to accept the argument or lend it credence. I may not accept the opposing argument in the full sense of the word, but I can tolerate it. I will be more willing to compromise my own position and extend recognition to the other. This tolerance for differences is invigorated should the differing parties to a conflict have any sort of personal relationship. Typically during protracted ethnopolitical conflicts, where peace processes are often started and stopped, the participants to the conflict have contact with one another which results in trust improvement and some sense of a personal relationship. This development of even an imperfect personal relationship between “enemies” can weaken the identity-based differences between the two and lessen the probability of conflict erupting because of differences. Even a small personal tie will contribute to tolerance.

By demanding that the media expose publics to disagreement and different opinions, I am not suggesting that the media fail if they do not meet an idealized standard of perfect balance. Such balance is probably impossible to define, let alone attain. And it is impossible to impose such a requirement on any one news outlet. It is probably true, however, that the marketplace of ideas works well enough as long as there is sufficient diversity and competition in the information environment. Competition for news and information is effective and clear ideas will find their way into both conflicting communities. The crucial factors for a deliberative media are competition and diversity. When opposing viewpoints contend shared values are more likely to emerge. The online environment poses an interesting example because as Wojcieszak and Mutz (2009) discovered, exposure to the others who disagree occurs more with nonpolitical groups. They studied chat rooms and message boards and discovered that politically oriented networks tended to agree with one another in the first place. Thus, one is more likely to be exposed to political disagreement in casual networks not devoted to politics.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 14, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy, Media and politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Don, can you make this theoretical stuff a little more concrete by providing an example of a situation where these ideas are particularly relevant.

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