My 80-20 Theory

Written by Wil

Towards the end of a nearly two-hour debate over abortion, I asked: “Do you believe an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her father should be forced to have his baby?”

He replied: “No, of course not.”

In other words, he’s essentially pro-life – but with reasonable limits.

I then conceded that I don’t believe a woman should be able to have an abortion if, when she’s 9-months pregnant, she finds out that her baby has brown eyes, but she’d prefer one whose eyes were blue.

So, I’m pro-choice – but also with reasonable limits.

And this is the idea behind my 80-20 Theory.

Conservative vs. Snowflake

My belief is that most of us agree about most things – at least to some degree. 

What I’ve found from listening and talking to people from very diverse backgrounds, who hold vastly different beliefs, is that a majority of us – maybe 80% – can usually find at least some common ground (if we try), and it’s likely that we share similar goals – even if our views on how to achieve them are remarkably dissimilar.

80-20 Theory: Most of us agree about most things, to some degree.

The friend who I was debating abortion with is staunchly conservative. On virtually every issue that I consider important, he comfortably occupies an end of the ideological spectrum that’s furthest from my own.

However, he’s also one of the finest, most empathetic and intellectually gifted people I know. He’s an amazing dad, husband and friend. Our goals are virtually identical.

Once we found that middle-ground that I described, we could debate exactly where those limits are. If the girl is 12? 13? Any instance of incest? Of rape? Would I oppose an abortion over the eye color if the mother was 8 months pregnant? 7? Am I against abortion because of eye color?

Those are reasonable discussions that people can respectfully have. What we did was – we found an area of agreement. We spent nearly 2 hours painting each other as the extreme versions of our arguments – the baby-killer vs. the guy who wants to control women’s bodies. When, in reality, we weren’t nearly as far apart as it seemed.

I’m pro-choice, but I don’t like abortion. I wish they never had to happen. I just believe that it isn’t my place to decide that. And he doesn’t want control over women. He just holds very strong religious beliefs and believes that there’s a soul inside of the fetus from the moment of conception.

We don’t even agree on the same sports teams! He likes the Mets, Jets and Knicks; while I like the Yankees, Giants and Nets.

**I grew up a Knicks fan, but also grew up in Brooklyn. Once Jay-Z announced that a team was being brought home to my borough? I had to switch allegiances. But Is It Okay to Switch?

And we’re never going to come to an agreement on that aspect of it. But instead of trying to convince one another to adopt our view, it was much more effective to find some form of common ground, and work from there.

Humanizing Each Other

He doesn’t fit the mold of someone I would assume holds these types of opposing beliefs (and hopefully vice-versa). Debating with him has helped me withhold assumptions about others I find myself debating with – especially when it’s online and not with someone I know. This makes it more possible to actually listen to the opposing arguments.

I have found that, many times, if I can pause the conversation for a moment and throw out something reasonable that might be agreeable to both of us, the entire tone of the conversation can change almost immediately. We still disagree, but suddenly, we’re not yelling at each other from across the room – but sharing a similar space and discussing how best to utilize it.

He and I have learned that we can vigorously disagree, but also find a common thread. He’ll never convince me to believe in his God, just like I’ll never convince him to give his up. But we can find some fundamental principles that we use to guide our lives – his through religion, and mine through humanism. And we can actually respect and learn about each other’s beliefs.

It’s Actually a 10-80-10 Theory

What about that other 20%?

Well, that’s the 10% on each side who hold the most extreme interpretations of an issue. On social media, those folks are typically loud, stubborn and aggressive. And because they’re so loud, they tend to gain the most attention and often end up monopolizing the conversation, ruining opportunities for productive civil discourse.

They’ll stake out the most fanatical representations of a position and depict extreme scenarios that are meant to either incite fear in those who are already in moderate agreement, or provoke angry, irrational responses from those with moderately opposed views – therefore blurring the actual moderate argument. By engaging, we’re giving these views credibility and widening the divide between opposing moderate views.

For instance, if someone on social media posts an article about Planned Parenthood selling baby parts – that’s an extreme view. This causes people to express outrage, or defend against the outlandish claim – creating an environment that is devoid of any practical arguments, and instead forcing people to choose sides.

Arguments like this bait us into defending outlier opinions and detracting from any legitimate discussions. Once involved, we often find ourselves defending positions that no longer represent our own, simply because the other side is just so outrageous.

And if we don’t oppose those views, then we risk being labeled by supporters of that side by the people who share our view – but occupy a more extreme version. We can be manipulated into joining the conversation for fear of being labeled as soft on the issue.

And before we know it? We begin to sound like the 20%. That’s why it often seems as if the reverse is true – that 80% of people hold extreme views and only 20% of us are reasonable. We tend to assume that the loudest voice in the room is winning the debate (though it’s often the opposite).


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