07/18/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Our Opinions Are Dumbing Us Down

I have friends and acquaintances who for years I've known to be rational, intelligent and competent. Most have careers doing complex sophisticated work. Most have families, and maintain loving relationships with their spouses and children. These people are not stupid, they are not uncaring, they are not belligerent, and they are not mean-spirited. I like these people.

But I'm getting worried.

Here's why. Some of these people carry wallets and some others carry money clips. This isn't new. But the "wallets vs. clips" difference has recently taken on new significance. I'm seeing bumper stickers such as "Wallets are Wise" and Facebook groups such as "Cash Clippers." I've even heard some of these people refer to themselves as "Walleteers" and "Clippers." For some reason, many of my friends seem to be locating more of their personal identity in this single choice about how they carry a few dollars. I don't understand why, when they have so many other diverse areas of their lives to pull from. But it's happening.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with this. Why not affiliate with like-minded people? Why not get together and swap stories about the latest wallet materials or clip technologies? Why not develop a sense of community around a shared interest? That's what both groups tell me when I ask, and it sure sounds good when they say it.

But afterward, I still feel worried.

Maybe it's because I've noticed each group disparaging the other. For all the years I've known these people, some have carried wallets and others have carried clips. But recently it's become more common for the wallet carriers to refer to the "Clueless Clippers," or worse. And the clip carriers have their own unkind slang for the wallet group. These otherwise kind people are getting mean.

I sense a sort of default assumption developing on both sides that the other group is misguided. So misguided, in fact, that their supposedly poor choice on this one specific decision becomes a sort of proof that they can't be expected to make good decisions in other areas -- which is shorthand for saying they can't be trusted.

A division is forming, and its strengthening with each round of disparaging behavior. Wallet users and clip carriers are becoming less willing to enter into meaningful friendships or relationships with each other. I've seen long-lasting friendships dissolved over the difference -- even though the difference was present throughout the friendship. The best anyone seems to be able to do any more is to maintain a sort of awkward "don't ask, don't tell" policy among friends who want to remain that way, and between colleagues and business associates who are afraid to sour their relationships.

Most worrisome though, is that all this awkward silence, separation, barrier building and distrust has led to an unwillingness on both sides to consider facts not supporting their preferences. Any piece of data, no matter how factually neutral, is immediately grasped by both sides, then either spun as a positive, or dismissed and ridiculed. Even unrelated data and issues get drawn into the fray! For example, a recent proposal recommending increased sensitivity on courthouse metal detectors was hailed by wallet users as revolutionary and vilified by clip users as prejudicial toward people carrying (metallic) clips. I don't think anyone in either group actually even considered the real reason for the proposal.

Okay, okay, I admit it. I'm being facetious. If all of this seems patently ridiculous to you, I agree. It is rather silly. I made it all up.

Sort of.

Actually, the only fiction above is the differentiator. "Wallets versus Money Clips," is not, to my knowledge, a major issue with my acquaintances. But if you replace that differentiator with any of a number of others and reread what's above, it becomes a true story. The ridiculousness of the situation, and my worry about it, are very real.

Try it for yourself.

Try it with "Corporations vs. The Common Man." It's difficult, rationally, to believe that the entire diverse population of organizations in the world is equally and maliciously corrupt, or that the entity of a corporation is somehow magically sacrosanct -- but those are essentially the positions being taken.

Try it with "Obama Supporters vs. Obama Detractors." It's difficult, rationally, to believe that one individual man in such a difficult position has never done anything right, or has never done anything wrong -- but those are essentially the positions being taken.

Try it with discipline in parenting, with health care reform, with the recent Zimmerman verdict. Pick any issue or current event which purports to have a "dialogue" associated with it. You'll likely find a pair of polarized opposite opinions, each assuming the other to be untrustworthy and potentially dangerous.

We're becoming a nation in which "dialogue" is a pseudonym for loudly barking opposite opinions while holding our fingers in our ears. We're no longer discerning and discussing the confusing, nonlinear, partial overlap between our interests. Instead, everybody is shouting and nobody is listening.

To be clear, I'm not saying we're losing the ability to reach out and interact productively with "the other side," though that would be problem enough. I'm saying that we're ceasing to frame problems and design solutions as anything other than a contest between opposite opinions. Simplistic adversarial bickering is becoming our one and only model for interacting with reality.

As this simplistic all-or-nothing thinking takes over, it strips us of our ability to solve problems intelligently in every context. We behave that way at work, when we should be working in smart groups to solve complex problems. We behave that way in our relationships, when we should be seeking common ground. We even behave that way with our children, working against them instead of with them.

It's a trend we must reverse. So the next time you find yourself taking sides, consider. What are the commonalities between your side and the other? What desires do you share? What constraints? What would be a higher level goal that, if achieved, would satisfy both sides?

I'm not saying this approach guarantees a solution. I am saying it's much more likely to lead to intelligent problem solving. So try it. Try it again and again until you get better at it, and then keep doing it. Please. This is important. It will take a lot of us to be successful, and we have to stick together.

After all, if you're not with us on this one, you're against us.