Managing Extreme Opinions during Deliberation Between Deeply Divided Groups

Even during those heavy late-night conversations in college about God the guy with an unmovable opinion, who just couldn’t see outside his own boundaries, was annoying. Extreme voices, and the harsh opinions and rigid sensibilities that accompany them, are always a problem during deliberation or any attempted genuine discussion. The practicalities of deliberation require manageably sized groups that are small enough for sufficient participation in genuine engagement with the other side that is not defused throughout a large network of people. In fact, smaller deliberative groups provide a more empirical experience one that is more easily observed and measured.

Originally, deliberation was associated with existing political systems working to solve problems through liberal democratic means that include all of the normative expectations of deliberation. The “rationality” associated with deliberation is most realistic for intact political systems. Deeply divided groups – groups divided on the basis of ethnicity and religion – were thought incapable of such discourse. But in the last few years authors such as Sunstein and myself have made a case for deliberation and ethnopolitically divided groups on the basis not of rationality but of the “error reduction” that communication can provide. And as the empirical work in deliberation has evolved numerous practical issues focusing on how people actually communicate has been the subject of research attention. Moreover, researchers form smaller deliberative groups that are more practical.

One of the variables or issues that emerged from the research that the smaller deliberative groups make possible is the matter of extreme opinions. Deliberators in the true sense are supposed to be engaging one another intellectually for the purpose of preference formation, along with all of the normative ideals of deliberation. But in the “real world” of deliberation people behave differently and sometimes badly. Individuals with polarized opinions and attitudes are supposed to moderate them and work toward collaboration, but this is an ideal that is not often achieved. There are individuals who do not fully appreciate or respect deliberative ideals.

This difficulty of extreme opinions is particularly pertinent to conflicts between ethnopolitically divided groups where the conflicts are deep and intense. Conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians is characterized by highly divergent opinions and tension. People hold firm and unshakable opinions and discussions between these competing groups are filled with individuals who hold rigid and extreme opinions. At first glance, you would think that rigid opinions would be disruptive and certainly damaging to the deliberative ideal. And, of course, that is possible. Research has shown that sometimes when groups get together and talk the result is a worsening of relationships rather than improvement. Efforts to reduce stereotypes by increasing contact with the target of the stereotype can sometimes simply reinforce already present stereotypic images.

Almost all decision-making groups of any type, deliberative or not, struggle with the problem of members who have extremely rigid opinions and cannot be or will not be moved. Subjecting one’s influence to the better argument is an ideal of deliberation and this is thwarted if group members resist exposure to the other side. Those with rigid opinions typically pay little attention to any collaborative strategy since their goal is the imposition of their own opinions. But the communication process can once again come to the rescue and at least increase the probability of moderation mostly through the process of continued exposure to information, ideas, and counter positions. And although it’s more complex than that the basic communicative process is the initial platform upon which change rests.

It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.

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Posted on February 3, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Managing Extreme Opinions during Deliberation Between Deeply Divided Groups.

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