New Beginnings (Part 2)

The Right Tool For The Right Job

Effective debate patterns cannot be established without first clearing the static.

Here’s an example, one we’ve heard about a lot lately. About two months ago George Floyd died in police custody. Similar to other cities, Portland, Oregon protesters took up signs and marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the end of the daily marches, some ratcheted it up with downtown vandalism. Local police responded. After several weeks, protests simmered down to around a hundred participants, a manageable size.

Not appreciating their continuing presence, however, the Feds decided to step in. Untrained for riot work, their policing tactics got a little carried away. In came thousands of new protesters, even forming new groups such as “The Wall of Moms,” “Dads with Leaf-blowers,” and others. Debris tossing and vandalism increased. The Feds doubled down, saying more troops would be sent to contain the increasing numbers.

See the defensive back and forth going on? It’s escalatory on both sides, and not resulting in solutions for Black Lives Matter, police reform, or quelling the unrest. Even worse, it introduced new problems. Clearly, it was the wrong tool for the job.

The static that so reliably confuses tool selection for social stress is better known as fight or flight. It’s gut reasoning, rather than common sense. Its urges work like this: if one side takes “hostile” action, the other side ups the ante—appropriate for a spear fight with a neighboring tribe, but not for working out viable solutions to social issues.

Furthermore, recognition that such tactics are ineffective appears to have gotten buried somewhere under that debris pile in front of the federal building. In part, this is because cause-and-effect observations are a feature of other forms of reasoning. Fight or flight urges are about identifying the “bad guys” and reacting.

We may shake our heads and click our tongues, agreeing with the absurdity of it all. But how often are we guilty of the exact same thing during impassioned discussion? Rather than listening and asking questions about an opposing position, we jump in to share and defend our own; then the opposition does likewise. We may keep piling it on until we say things we both know are ridiculous, or get into name-calling tactics.

Thus we not only fail to establish healthy debate or solutions, but also alienate those whose cooperation we need to move forward. We may even overlook the fact that the opposition is someone we care about, and would ordinarily avoid hurting. But as far as gut reasoning goes, “winning” supersedes all else. Defensive static blurs our ability to find productive strategy or quality relationships.

Breaking this interference pattern requires solid awareness of what gut brains instigate—the what’s, when’s, how’s, and why’s. Every generation wrestles with this phenomenon in one form or another. But only by finding ways to listen beyond the static do we hear the solutions higher thinking offers for today’s social divides.

Laurel Hughes, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist specializing in disaster mental health, is author of “The Cogjam Effect – and the Path to Healing Divisive Community and Fractured Science,”