Interview with Matthew Legge - Author of Are We Done Fighting?

by: Sara on 07/24/2019

In today's post we speak with Matthew Legge, author of Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division. Matthew has worked in the nonprofit sector for the last 13 years, with a focus on helping people thrive through the full enjoyment of health, dignity, and rights. Since 2012, he has worked with Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC), the peace and social justice agency of the Religious Society of Friends in Canada (Quakers). Quakers are widely respected for their efforts to prevent war and transform conflicts, as well as their impartial support for war victims. 

Look for our winning giveaway question at the end of the post! Be sure to check out our giveaway schedule for your change to win!

 

What would you say is the first step in building understanding between individuals?

I don’t lay out the book in a “take this step, then this step, then understanding will follow” kind of formula because it deals with difficult issues with a great many variables in play and each situation is going to be different. But there are some features that come up a lot. I’d say it will be very difficult to build understanding if neither party has any curiosity. We need something to soften us and open us up enough to make us genuinely curious about what the other side is experiencing and how they got to the positions they hold. 

To write an example offered in the book – how the controversy around University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson and pronoun use first took shape and what might have been done differently – I listened to many  hours of his lectures and read content both my supporters and opponents of his. Many people were aggressive and hyper-confident (the opposite of curious), and many of these videos were deeply frustrating to watch. 

Listening to folks who really challenge you can be very difficult. When we’re at our best though, we feel both challenged and we find ways to feel genuine warmth for the other person, not because of their views, but for them as a person distinct from their views or actions. That doesn’t mean we agree with them, but we may start to understand them better. 

Much evidence shows that we really dislike being confronted by views that don’t agree with our own. Most of us will try to put ourselves in information bubbles where we only see what seems to confirm what we already believe. We’ll unfriend people on Facebook for posting political content we don’t agree with, that kind of thing. But try to remember that if you’re still in relationship with someone but you’re not listening to them, you are communicating with each other anyway. Your communication just isn’t as effective as it could be!

Can peace building at the individual level affect structural change?

Absolutely I think it can. The book is very much focused at the individual level, although broader structural issues certainly come in, mostly in the last fifth. This was a deliberate choice because the interpersonal level is what’s guaranteed to be directly relevant to all of us, and I wanted it to be a book that any reader could immediately relate to and use. 

I offer my definition of peace in an appendix and it is much broader than what, say, the  UN is talking about when it’s talking about peacebuilding, so I hope folks won’t get thrown off and think this is a book just about Darfur and not relevant to their day to day lives.

To what extent do compassion and empathy play a role in the ability to build understanding between people?

Matthew Legge 2

Author Matthew Legge

In order for me to understand you, it really helps if I can internally simulate what you’re talking about. Neuroscientists have found this. When folks are having really great resonant conversations, their brain activity starts to look similar. In some cases the listener is apparently even anticipating what’s going to come next and their brain activity is changing accordingly before the speaker’s does. This might feel like a high degree of empathy, of caring between the people, and of understanding.

Then think about cases where people don’t understand each other at all – they’re totally out of synch. If I’m extremely sad, say at a funeral, and you’re feeling angry about the state of the world and you try to get me on board with your social justice cause at that moment, we’re out of synch, there’s no understanding between us in that moment. I can’t simulate your experience, and you can’t simulate mine, so we don’t feel very connected. 

One reason that it’s easier for many of us to like people who are similar to us may be that our concepts are similar, so we can simulate each others’ worlds more readily. What I’m suggesting too is that understanding will change moment to moment, it’s not something we either have or we don’t, any of us can build it or not bother because that can be hard work. The choice is always up to us.

Now as with everything discussed in the book, empathy and compassion aren’t just good or just bad. They don’t only help build understanding. We can wind up taking actions that don’t serve us well because we feel empathy. Perhaps we feel real empathy with the victims of an extremist bombing. That feeling could lead us to ask good questions about what happened and to look for viable ways to transform the situation. But we could instead support the “war on terror,” which has so far cost nearly $6 trillion dollars and has, if anything, led to increases in violent extremism worldwide. So who we feel compassion for and try to understand matters!

To what extent does an imbalance of power contribute to social division?

I think that power imbalances are huge factors in social division. They can also at times take up too much of our energy and steer us away from thinking about the power each of us does have. 

I don’t think that everyone needs to be exactly the same, but when we have certain actors like billionaire families who can have such strong influence over government policies, that’s a major difference from the rest of us, and that division is also contributing to many other divisions. The historical experiences of different groups also have very significant present-day implications for social division.

I haven’t focused on those types of power imbalances in the book because I want it to be relevant to as wide a range of readers as possible, and the kinds of power analyses I’ve just touched on are more associated with the political left. I really tried my best not to make this a left vs. right kind of book, because that’s actually part of the problem! This is a book trying to help address polarization, not contribute to furthering it. At the same time, one can’t ignore reality, so it’s a fine balance to try to strike, and I go into how we can each do that in several places in the book. 

Also I didn’t try to create a formula about power imbalances because each individual needs to reflect on each conflict they’re in for themselves, to see who has what position and what power. What the book shows is that in spite of vast imbalances in material resources, for instance, folks can achieve a great deal. I share the example of a handful of people who got together and averted what experts said was an impending civil war! 

Power is a concept introduced in Chapters 3 and 4 and one that I learned a lot about in researching for this book. Like so many of us, I mistakenly thought of power as the ability to force people to do what I want. Coercing people is one way to get them to do things, and it can certainly work some of the time. I bet all of us have taken actions we didn’t really want to out of fear, even just the fear of a negative judgment from friends or family. But that’s actually only one type of power, and in the book I show that another type seems to work more often (although certainly not always) and to generally have more constructive consequences when it does work. I give examples of it working in remarkable circumstances, like in helping former sex offenders, hate group members, and other folks who we might think of as unreachable. If it can work in those circumstances, it’s at least worth trying with your annoying neighbor!

Winning Question from our online giveaway

How do you have a productive conversation when everyone believe that they know the whole truth and wont accept facts or statistics that don't confirm their beliefs?

Great question. Check out Chapters 6 and 8 in particular (you can download 6 for free at https://AreWeDoneFighting.com). There are many practical tips to address this one. What I found is that debates, statistics, etc. don't work as well as we'd like them to. It's not that they never work, but they’re often not the best approach. We assume the other side has an information deficit - if they just knew more or had better information thrown at them they’d have to agree with us. This isn’t how belief change seems to work though, in particular when the belief is close to our identity. I also want to highlight that ignoring facts isn’t about, for instance, where we stand on the political spectrum or not being well educated enough. Folks on the left and right seem to use the same cognitive tricks to believe what they want to, to try to discredit inconvenient information, and to act inconsistently with their beliefs many times. And folks with more formal education show more cognitive biases, not fewer.

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