Popping the bubble: How to talk to people you don’t agree with

For many people heading home last Christmas, difficult conversations about race, immigration and prejudice awaited them, along with the gravy or cranberry sauce.

Awkward moments among kin discussing things like Brexit or Black Lives Matter, whether Merkel really cares about the German nation or if Trump is “just speaking the truth”: these happen whether you celebrate Christmas or not, and they’re certainly not limited to the holiday season.

Rarely do these conversations have a satisfying ending. As much as you might hope for it, your prejudiced uncle is pretty unlikely to defect to the side of global citizenship, the Daily Show and Kiezbingo.

Such frustrating interactions are not reserved for families with bible-thumping evangelisers or libertarian pariahs. We live in an increasingly divided world, sharply cleaved along the lines of political party and ideological creed. Increasingly, we are unable to reach across the divide to have a civil conversation, whether that’s on Twitter (see my latest trolls) or at the polls.

Unfortunately for the project of a pluralistic, liberal democracy (read a democratic system that protects the freedoms of diverse individuals), we seem to be failing at the very foundation; we’re failing at civility and public debate.

Saving a democracy that works for all of us, even for that prejudiced uncle, means learning to interact and speak to one another… even if disagreement begins with the most fundamental of understandings and ends with spilled wine and a tub of ice cream.

So where do we begin?

Let’s start by rejecting the idea that minds can be changed by the mere presentation of fact. Facts are powerful, but they aren’t this powerful. Why is that?

Because of confirmation bias, for one. As a researcher for Psychology Today describes, “this type of bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”

Breaking out of this prison, especially at the dinner table – carving that steak into micro-bits, eyes averted from the red-faced, racist uncle – requires an untightening of the grip many of us hold on “killer facts”. It also requires an acknowledgement that assumptions act as the ghostwriter for many of our decisions and beliefs about issues, people and even ourselves. One such assumption is that because we are informed, we are right.

Killer facts and confirmation bias

I once drew a downward-sloping curve on a napkin in a debate with a family member in an effort to prove that undocumented immigrants to the United States were actually in significant decline. I grabbed a blunt pencil, pushing my beer out of the way to make room for the task, and nearly carved a line into the table in the process. “See!”, I said, “net migration is at the lowest point since…”

It didn’t matter. His perception of “illegals taking over this country” was strong. However, it was not so much his perception that was preventing my message from getting through. It was the style and purpose of the confrontation: me, a liberal, citing some statistics via a napkin to tell him he was wrong.

Research has shown that knowing just a few easy-to-cite facts emboldens us to make strong, sometimes sweeping arguments based on these facts, even if we don’t quite understand the system or the greater implications of what we’re talking about in the first place. If I know a few numbers that affirm what I already believe, I will make stronger arguments – citing these numbers – with more frequency than if I just had a hunch about the cause of a certain phenomenon.

This is confirmation bias in action and in its consequence. This is also what makes a lot of us liberals seem like jerks.

But this confidence in one’s own information and one’s own view doesn’t just come from a place of wanting to be right so badly that we enact it into reality.

“People believe that they know more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people,” writes journalist Elizabeth Kolbert in a piece about “why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” for The New Yorker.

Our like-minded friends and our Twitter pals reinforce the beliefs we hold about the facts we deem to be true. Yes, even facts can be the subject of belief or disbelief. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty of this seemingly oxymoronic state of mind – disbelieving a thing that should stand in for what is empirically true, considering a fact we are presented with to be less true because of our predisposition or desire to believe something different.

A paradigmatic example of this involves crime statistics and their relationship to immigration.

Since time immemorial, the immigration-crime nexus has presented challenges for immigration advocates, on one hand, and opportunities for immigration opponents, on the other. In other words, those who think immigration and diversity are good things do not wish for a positive correlation between immigration and crime. If more immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants, making a case for immigration becomes very difficult.

On the other side of the aisle, those who think immigration and diversity pose a threat to society wish for a positive correlation between immigration and crime. If more immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants, curbing immigration and, say, isolating people of colour socially and institutionally becomes pretty popular policy.

Both sides tend to cite verifiable facts. But they also cite moral arguments: immigration advocates may utter an idealistic notion of social inclusion and some statistical evidence in the same breath, while opponents may do the same concerning ethno-cultural purity. The facts cited by both the proponents and the opponents can, if interpreted and applied to public debate in just the right way, achieve a positive outcome for both.

This does not make these facts untrue, nor does it make it easy to catch factual manipulation in its tracks.

The Sweden debate

Take the case of Sweden and the apparent correlation between increased immigration and the increase in reported incidents of sexual assault. On Twitter, the Right and the Left have been debating the truth value of the claim that more immigrants to Sweden have increased sexual crime in that country five-fold. Interestingly enough, both sides have been posting more or less the same graphs and the same numbers.

The difference lies in the interpretation. The Left cites substantial changes to Sweden’s rape laws and the country’s scrupulous track-record in the reporting of such incidents; the Right sticks to its guns and looks only at the numbers. In other words, these stats can either be explained by the context and prevalent background information, or these stats can speak for themselves.

Which approach would you rather believe to be correct?

If this were merely a war of facts and how facts are understood by the public-at-large, the Right should win. Yet no one on the Left would concede this fight, admitting that immigrants increase violence toward women. For what end or outcome would this achieve for those who believe in immigration and diversity?

Many of us from the Left jumped to offer explanations and refutations to the Swedish immigration-crime correlation, effectively working with the stats themselves to make an argument in our favour, albeit with the added use of contextual data. For example, a sociologist presented a graph of his own on Twitter, showing how the drastic increase in rape did not actually correlate with the influx of refugees. This graph got nearly 100 retweets.


Did anyone from the other side see this graph? It’s very unlikely, because these conversations tend to be among ourselves, each camp speaking to the camp that will believe it and affirm it the most.

And therein lies the evidence for confirmation bias and the reinforcing mechanism of everybody’s favourite echo chamber. We believe which facts we want to believe, and we continue this belief, despite evidence or arguments to the contrary because of the community that surrounds us.

Neukölln: Where are all the Germans?

Just a few days ago, I took to the streets of Neukölln, a district I know well and love, to ask passers-by, shop-owners and market vendors what they thought about this big, bad topic of ‘integration’.

Some had no idea what I was getting at with such a word. “I’ll be sure to ask my son when I get home; he’ll know what this is all about,” one Pakistani-German merchant told me. But some had very strong opinions, even racist ones.

A man in a beige polyester suit emerged from the U-Bahn station at Hermannplatz and flashed me a smile, bearing a few gold crowns and a desire to talk. He was German through and through (in the way one identifies, speaks, and appears to outsiders). When I asked whether we could have a quick chat about his feelings on integration, he eagerly expressed what he called his “honest opinion”, proceeding to use a racial slur (Kanacken, or cockroaches) to describe Neukölln’s Turkish population.

He was one of the only Germans to be seen in Neukölln that day, he said, surrounded by foreigners who couldn’t speak a word of German, who stick to themselves and to their culture, who can’t even go to the doctor’s alone, after two generations in this country! Responding to my question about how one could improve the integration of newcomers, he said, “close the borders. That’s how you make integration work”.

What could I have said in that passing conversation to complicate his perspective? Would an explanation of structural discrimination and racism have helped my case? Would a graph of Germany’s relatively consistent immigration rate over the last 50 years have convinced him that his perception was simply incorrect? I highly doubt it.

What I did not say is “you’re wrong”, though I would have liked to. And what I did wonder was whether introducing him to my new informant across the way, the Pakistani-German who had made a plan to ask his son about the meaning of this word ‘integration’, would have made some sort of a difference. After all, they had one thing in common. Both men lamented the scarcity of ‘Germans’ in Neukölln that day, albeit for different reasons: the first experienced the lack of Germans in the area as a factor that turned him, a self-described German, into an outsider; the second Pakistani-German saw the lack of Germans in the area as bad business. “Foreigners don’t buy anything!” he told me.

Finding common ground and acknowledging the views and feelings on the other side is the first step. Where one goes from there becomes a matter of negotiation. How might my assumptions prevent me from receiving your experience or your argument? And how might your assumptions prevent you from receiving mine? That’s what civil conversation looks like, though we’re all pretty out of practice.

Kelly Miller is the co-founder of Collidoscope Berlin and Migration Matters.

Photo: Juri Gottschau