“Why are the youth of today so defensive?” Someone asked me this question this week and although it was rhetorical, I’ve been pondering it. I’ve struggled with some hot tempers at work this week too – people stressed before a deadline getting wound up with each other. I’ve felt those emotions too and noticed my own defensiveness. 

As part of my study of conflict I want to explore this question. Defensiveness is a response to perceived or real threat and often causes statements that threatens others, making them in turn defensive. I’ll split the question into three parts: why are people defensive? Why are youths defensive? And are the youth of today more defensive?

Why are people defensive?

The first reason for defensiveness is attribution bias, our tendency to explain away our own mistakes as caused by external and temporary factors (a bad day, someone’s interference) and to blame other people’s mistakes on their character (being insensitive, being lazy). We often tell ourselves stories about other people and their motivations for a certain behaviour: “he’s selfish and uncaring and didn’t acknowledge my work in the meeting because he doesn’t value me” and tell ourselves stories that are more flattering version “she’s so overreacting (typical!). I’ve had a tough week and put that presentation together in a rush, I just made a mistake, why is she so sensitive?!” Before long we talk to these pictures of each other that are in our heads and get angry that the other person’s picture of us is so wrong without recognising that so is our picture of them (from their perspective). The “unfair” attack on us makes us defensive. Their defensiveness makes us frustrated and unfairly criticised for our criticism. 

An outsider can often see the stupid pettiness of these arguments. The people involved are too blinded by emotion and their pictures of each other to see that pettiness. 

To reduce our own and other people’s defensiveness we need to change our pictures of each other. We need to be curious rather than jumping to conclusions. In their book series “Crucial conversations” and “crucial accountability” the Vitalsmarts team encourage you to go into a conversation that could be emotional having prepared by thinking “why might a well meaning, intelligent and considerate person have done that?”  The aim is to answer that in multiple ways, to realise that we are telling ourselves a story about the other person which may not be the only explanation of the facts. 

Why are youths defensive?

Attribution bias is one contributing factor of defensiveness, but it is not the only one. The other main factor is a sensitive ego. There are, I think, three stages in the development of the ego: in the first stage we build the ego up – we build up our sense of self. At this stage our ego is very vulnerable and easily slighted by other people’s comments. We may be boastful or showing off, we care deeply about what other people think of us (even if we try to kid ourselves we don’t!) and we are easily hurt. At this stage we are often defensive in an emotional way. 

In the second stage we have a strong ego and have built a lot of confidence. People in this stage are often “thicker skinned” than those in the first stage: They are less likely to be defensive and hurt by other people’s feelings about them, but also less sensitive to other people’s ego needs. There is often a sense of having achieved a maturity: emotionally and in terms of professional skills and with this a willingness to judge as inferior those who haven’t achieved that. 

There is a third stage, one that Richard Rohr describes eloquently in his book “Falling Upward“, in which we consciously and freely let go of our ego needs, in which we choose to accept criticism not in stoic martyrdom or with bitten-tongue resentment, but in Love. In this stage we can even accept that we don’t have to like ourselves: we accept our flaws simply, patiently and as God does. 

Richard Rohr describes two parts to our lives, one in which we build up our fragile egos and a second part where we let go of our strong one. My experience is that it is more circular than that. As I let go of an old model of myself, a new one arises that is initially vulnerable. In its early vulnerability I am easily hurt and very defensive. Eventually I become more confident and the defensiveness diminishes, but my judgements of other people increases. At some point I realise I can let go that label, that need to be right, and as I do so I accept both myself and others. That opens my eyes to a deeper truth, and being human, I personalise that truth in a new model of myself and the cycle repeats. My moments in the third stage are fleeting and all too temporary, but they are also sufficiently real for me to know they are true. 

(If that was all too spiritual, I also have a more prosaic model – I started as a physicist and initially went through a defensive stage about my physics ability, then I got more confident (less defensive but more arrogant), and eventually sufficiently confident not to worry about criticisms, at which point I was promoted into management and I went through a defensive stage about my management ability and the cycle repeated until I let go of needing to be right, at which point I was promoted to being a leader…)

Despite this circle, there is a component of age. The young have been through this cycle less often and less consciously than the old. It is probably not just the youth of today who are extremely defensive, but the youth of any age. 

Why are people today more sensitive?

I started this blog with the question I was asked rhetorically about why the youth of today are so defensive. I’ve suggested so far that it is a combination of attribution bias making anyone defensive and the specific ego needs of the young making youths defensive. 

And yet, the questioner had also noticed something about today. We see a lot of open defensiveness. Part of this is our new medium of communication: the comments threads on Facebook or newspaper articles do not bring out the best in people and so many of us spend hours every day reading them. Does that tone spill into our more human interactions too?

But my observation of the defensiveness at work this week (including my own) showed another modern malaise: stress. Far too many of us are overwhelmed by busyness, by a continuous stream of things to do, by information overload, by overflowing email inboxes. We are all running at the edge of our ability to cope and it takes only the slightest trigger for that stress to flip over the edge to the point where it comes out in our interactions with other people. Maybe we are more defensive nowadays because it is a stress response. 

So, to conclude, if we want to break down conflicts caused by defensiveness we need to acknowledge the stories we are telling ourselves that make us purer and them nastier than we really are. We need to build a strong enough ego and then freely release it. We need to insulate ourselves from the aggressive patterns of Internet comments threads, probably by limiting our time on them and we need to let go of our busyness and stress. 

None of those steps is easy. We will all stumble at some point in that. So we should also learn to forgive ourselves and each other for the defensiveness that remains. 

Not trusting experts

Probably the defining quote of the Brexit campaign was when Michael Gove said “Britain has had enough of experts.” That sentence either swung the poll in itself or was an incredibly astute observation from someone whose political reputation at that point was disastrous. It showed up the main difference between how Remain campaigned and how Leave campaigned. 

The university-educated middle classes, especially those in the “London-bubble” and who tended to vote Remain and made up the majority of the Remain campaigners, were using the kinds of arguments that convinced them: apparently rational arguments based on the views of economic (and other) experts. The campaigners spoke to different expert groups in turn and produced clear predictions of the difficulties: economic, legal, practical. The people who listened were themselves experts and they were convinced by other experts. 

The Leave campaign focused on more emotional arguments – appealing to national pride, fear of immigrants, the desire to “take back control”. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have thought-through expert plans on what these ideas mean. 

Now, while I was (and am) staunchly pro-EU, the point of this blog is not to discuss those arguments. It is to consider why “Britain has had enough of experts” was so successful.

I think there are two reasons. The first is a sense of anger from a large part of the community who feels unheard, ignored and arrogantly patronised by the “elites”.  There is an isolation between London and the regions, between the wealthy and the poor. And this isolation has increased over recent years and while neither side really understands the lifestyle, challenges and pressures of the other, the power balance is very uneven. 

During the Brexit campaigning I joined a group on Facebook called “Scientists for the EU”. When anyone came on that forum and said anything pro Leave, the response (early on – the moderators stopped this eventually) was a barrage of insults about their lack of education, which amounted to “your opinion is worthless if you don’t have a PhD”. The arrogance and rudeness was awful. It’s hardly surprising that people wanted to annoy people who had treated them with such disdain by doing the opposite of what they said. 

That alone couldn’t fully explain the success of the slogan, though. Recently I understood a bigger reason. I was debating climate change on Facebook and I asked someone why she didn’t trust experts. This was her reply:

Another person expanded on this. They have noticed that Al Gore, who in the USA at least is the face of saying climate change is real, is a politician whose political views they disagreed with, and who now owns shares in carbon trading companies, so he will make a personal fortune if carbon trading is fully introduced. 

And without having distinguished scientific truth from other types of truth (see earlier blogs), because they disagree with (and are suspicious of) his suggested solution to climate change, they also don’t trust him saying climate change is real. 

Understanding others

We live in what appears to be an increasingly polarised world, polarised into “us and them”, “right and wrong”. Maybe it has always been so, but the internet makes us more aware of it, or maybe the internet is actually increasing the polarisation. As a social species, we form groups and those groups work by creating insiders and outsiders, by developing a group think. There is plenty of evidence (reference needed) that, over time, the views of a group polarise as they reinforce each other in one direction and criticise thoughts in the other direction. 

I’ve been fascinated by experiments in confirmation bias. They took a group of people and asked them how much they opposed capital punishment on a scale of 0 to 10 (I realise I should put a reference here, but will have to go back to edit this for that). They took the people who chose 3 (moderately in favour) and 7 (moderately against) and showed them all the same set of facts, presented emotionally neutrally and with evidence and references. Equal numbers of facts were interpretable as supporting and opposing. It might be expected that the individuals, having heard both sides, would become more neutral. Instead they became more polarised, moving to 1 or 2, or 8 or 9. Perhaps this is because they paid more attention to facts that supported their opinion, or maybe they argued against facts that opposed their opinion and in so doing, convinced themselves. 

What this suggests is that giving people who disagree with you information and facts doesn’t work. It may even be counterproductive. 

In this blog I want to explore some big sensitive issues – climate change and its denial, homophobia and those who feel “Christian values” are at threat, “black lives matter” and the resistance to being labelled racist, Israel and Palestine, refugees and European “overcrowding”, London and the regions, Brexit and the EU, gun law in the USA. I also want to explore some smaller conflicts and group polarisation: women in science, working mums, flatblock arguments about children playing noisily in the communal gardens, even Christian and non-theist Quakers. 

I think in all these cases we have situations where both sides feel they are the victim. They also view the situation from such different standpoints and through such different filters that they cannot begin to understand each other. I want to attempt to understand both sides and explore that here. 

Of course I have my own biases, my own viewpoint, my own filters. My aim is to be conscious of them and seek to understand other views. Sometimes I will present my own views in this blog.