Bridging political divides

Filipinos have been characterized as highly tolerant people. Our preference for harmony, indirectness, and collectivism has been commented on by social analysts of the local psyche. In fact, our tolerance and agreeableness have sometimes been criticized as being a national fault that has encouraged bullies, oppressive leaders, and even the institutionalized abuse of martial law.

I favor candid exchanges of views and disapprove of those who impose their views on others, especially when they do it in a coarse and uncivil way. I enjoy a healthy debate over important issues, but I think each person has an inherent right to a point of view. Besides, social realities are so complex that no one person can claim a monopoly of wisdom on matters such as crime prevention, parenting, politics, sex, faith, and business.

The problem today is that the pendulum has swung to the other side. Because of the Internet, we are now more exposed to different ideas that are often opposed to ours. We weren’t prepared for this kind of diversity of views. Intolerance, incivility, and tribalism have become the common state of affairs between President Duterte’s supporters and those who oppose him. These two groups don’t just disagree with each other; they often characterize each other as evil, or at the very least, morally suspect. As a result, constructive exchanges of views are almost nonexistent.

Of course, this worsening animosity over political differences is not just happening here. The Americans and the British are experiencing deep divides among themselves that seem worse than what they’ve experienced in the past.

For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center among Americans shows that the numbers of Republicans and Democrats with very unfavorable views of the opposing party have grown. Worse, the numbers saying the other party threatens the nation’s well-being have also increased by almost 10 percentage points from two years ago!

What’s going on?

Research done by social psychologists on in-group conflicts can provide helpful clues to understand these worrisome developments. More importantly, we can try to do some things to improve the situation, especially if it involves people and issues we care about.

Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, explains that people become polarized on political issues because they prioritize different principles of morality.

For example, based on an online survey of more than 20,000 Americans, Haidt found out that most conservatives value in-group loyalty and authority very highly while liberals do not. Liberals highly value openness to other people and new experiences and prefer to question authority while conservatives do not.

Haidt says that “liberals speak for the weak and oppressed and want change and justice even at the risk of chaos.” Haidt explains that in contrast, “conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at cost to those at the bottom.”

Is it possible that strong supporters of President Duterte are like American conservatives who prioritize authority in support of social order? Could the President’s critics be closer to the American liberals who prioritize defending the weak? If so, then we can understand why they don’t trust each other on how to deal with the drug issue. They tend to see the other side as a threat to the country’s well-being, but only from their own limited moral lens. Their tribalism tends to confirm their biases about the other side.

Here’s the thing: Haidt points out that both sides are right. For a society to survive, it needs authority as well as caring for the weak and oppressed. It needs order as well as openness to others. But a good thing carried to an extreme can be a vice.

Haidt concludes, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

So, it doesn’t make sense to demonize the other side. Society is not necessarily a fight between good and evil. The key is to sustain conversations on how different moral priorities can be pursued in a balanced way.

What can we do to have more civil political conversations? Let us reach out in a friendly way to people from the other side and acknowledge their valid concerns whether in person or over social media. For example, an occasional “Like” on a challenger’s Facebook comment could lessen the social poison just a little bit. Then, let us calmly share our own concerns. In this respectful spirit, creative options can emerge.

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is Full Professor of Management and Organization at De La Salle University and Vice-Chair of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.