Guns and moral conflict

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Photo by Antonio Grosz

We keep saying the same things, and we get angry that we keep saying the same things, and then we get more angry that the other side is angry that we’re angry.

We just can’t understand why they don’t get it. So we take our anger out on Facebook and Twitter. And nothing changes. In fact, it only gets worse.

W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn call this viscous cycle of communication “moral conflict.” These types of disagreements are not like most arguments. Trying to persuade the other side inflames the situation further. Social media then escalates the conflict.

In their book Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide, Pearce and Littlejohn look at examples like abortion, religion in politics and education, legal rights for same-sex couples and environmental politics. There issues are so divisive that normal communication strategies fail.

Under better circumstances, we might try to talk it through with the other side and share where we’re coming from. But in these instances, the two sides start with fundamentally different philosophical values and viewpoints. They can’t even agree on basic definitions and terminology (such as calling themselves pro-life vs. pro-choice).

For example, abortion. If you believe that life begins at conception and ending that process is murder, you’ll have a hard time seeing that a woman has a right to choose what she wants to do with her body. And if you believe that a woman controls her own reproductive process, you’ll have a hard to seeing that someone else should tell you what should happen inside your own uterus.

It’s similar with gun control. If you see guns as evil and enabling mass murder, you’ll have a hard time seeing that there shouldn’t be limits on guns in society. And if you see guns as personal protection against evil, you’ll have a hard time seeing that someone should limit your access to that protection.

Your views affect even the language that you use. According to Pew Research Center, After Las Vegas attack, Democrats in Congress were far more likely to use the words shooter or gunman in Facebook posts. Republicans were more likely to emphasize evil or first responders. Among Democratic members of Congress who posted about the attack, 63% mentioned guns, compared with only 2% of congressional Republicans.

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Around and around it goes. When we discuss our different positions and it doesn’t persuade the other side, we both get more frustrated and more entrenched. Pearce and Littlejohn write that the next stages are that conflicts become “intractable,” “morally attenuated,” and “rhetorically ineloquent.” In other words, that means we start calling each other names, using ends-justify-the-means tactics like violence, and stop trying to see the other side entirely.

“We found that such conflicts are very difficult to resolve because participants are either unwilling or unable to talk about their incommensurate assumptions,” wrote Littlejohn.

What’s the answer to these types of problems? That’s not easy. Pearce and Littlejohn have spent 30 years looking at what they call the “transcendent communication project,” which seeks to facilitate an understanding of one’s own and others’ moral positions to at least reduce hostility and violence of these struggles.

It may be impossible to come to an agreement with the other side in moral conflict. That’s what makes it moral conflict.

The least we might be able to hope for in these situations is recognition of mutual humanity and achieve some level of mutual understanding.

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