The reason I write is because I have something to say, I have ideas that I believe will benefit others and I believe that communication works — that writing to you each week can indeed bear fruit.
I do not believe I am typing into an empty void — nor should I — through words, we can share ideas and come to an understanding.
I worry, however, that too many people are failing to see it this way. That they view difficult conversations as just not worth having and believe that people rarely ever change their minds.
We have lost hope in the promise of conversation, the promise that through exchanging words we can come to an understanding.
For many of us, our quest to change the world is characterised as a fight, a struggle against a powerful enemy; the powers that be, the changing times or the system itself. That, there are “bad guys” that we must defeat at all costs.
There is something depressing and cynical about this that people don’t seem to see.
When we resolve to fight, we have tacitly presumed that words do not work, that we cannot come to reason, that we must engage in force.
The norm has well been established that in polite conversation, there are certain topics that we have permanently left off the table. Politics, religion and ideology are topics that we have all decided we know better than to discuss in most contexts.
I believe we are sorely mistaken, and this is a problem. The reason why we are so slow in making cultural progress is because we take specific ideas and make them immune to criticism. If we can’t criticise ideas, we have no way of updating them.
Our political ideas are how we run the world.
Our religious and philosophical ideas are what frame how we live our lives.
We are all fallible, we are all human, we make mistakes in all the domains of our lives — so of course we make mistakes here too. Can you not see the steep cost of not talking about them?
The problem is we all-too-often identify with our beliefs — that is; view them as a part of who we are — and when these beliefs are criticised, we feel like we are personally attacked. People can indeed attack our views as a proxy for attacking us — they can have the intention of making us look bad, or insulting us — but it doesn’t follow that this is always the case. Mere disagreement should not bring out defensiveness.
In one of his tweets, my friend Nathan even made the case that we should be thankful when a person presents disagreement.
When we encounter disagreement with someone, either we are wrong, they are wrong, or both parties are. This means there is an opportunity to learn. When we stigmatise disagreement, we cut off one of the best ways we have to improve our thinking.
“The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying.”
Alfred North Whitehead
We need to learn to separate ourselves from our ideas about the world, or we will not be able to improve them.
The reason these and other taboos exist is because we view the conversations as intractable. We see ourselves causing ourselves and others pain and frustration in the short-term but to no lasting benefit at all. I believe the real problem here is not that these conversations are impossible to have but that we are terrible at having them.
This is a problem I see on all sides of the political and religious spectrum; we are far too quick to view conversing with the other as an intractable problem. I have had many conversations with others about what they believe are the causes of the ills in the world — after digging, the response I receive is some version of “those people are stupid, ignorant or evil”.
To be clear:
I dig with a question like:
“Why do you think we’ve come to this point? What is the root of these issues in society?”
And I all too often reach
“Those people are just too stupid, or those people are too selfish.”
Why are we so quick to believe our fellow humans are irreparably damaged? That no words could possibly reach them.
Not only is this almost certainly false, it leaves no way of peacefully addressing the problem. It is at this point that the conversation devolves into merely complaining about the other side, rather than trying to understand where they are coming from and make progress.
We need to learn to see the other as ourselves — to realise that whatever bad ideas or ill-intent they may be holding — we too are capable of possessing.
“He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”
John Stuart Mill
Look back on your life until now, think about all the views you have held in the past that you now cringe, think now of the actions you now regret. Is the best explanation for this that you were simply too stupid or evil? No, given your knowledge at the time it made sense but since then you have learned better.
Surely this is enough evidence that you are capable of holding the views that you scorn, and it is reason to feel compassion for the other side.
But it’s worse than this, I am afraid.
You have changed your views in the past, and will do so again. The ideas you have about the world today that you hold onto as if a secure foundation — these too you may look back on with regret. It very well could be that you are wrong not only in your condemnation but your ideas as well.
Not only do we have to be open to the other being a good and reasonable human being, that is merely acting in confusion — we must extend this to realising that it indeed might be we who are wrong. Our beliefs are our best guesses to how reality is like; there are better and worse ways to make them — but they do not rest on a secure foundation. In every statement we make, a corner of our minds should be reminding ourselves of our own fallibility — that we could be wrong. In every exchange with the other, they could be right. The very nature of what we are calling foolishness — may indeed be wisdom.
In her 2011 TED Talk On Being Wrong, Katheryn Schulz noticed that pretty much everyone walks around through life with a felt certainty that they are right.
“So effectively, we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”
We all have different ideas of how things are, and they tend to conflict — it’s a fact that we can’t all be right. Yet, Katheryn noticed that somehow we all manage to believe we are.
The way we are brought up, cultured and educated; mistakes are stigmatised.
If you make mistakes, the perception is that something is wrong with you — therefore we go to lengths to avoid feeling like we are wrong.
Ironically, the lengths we go to achieve this means we end up being wrong for a lot longer than we need to.
Katheryn noted that to feel right, what most of us do is make assumptions about those holding other views, namely that they are ignorant, stupid or evil.
This need not be the case. We could be wrong. We could be failing to explain ourselves adequately. We could not be connecting with what they mean and what their most deep-seated reasons are for holding their point of view. We need to let go of our felt sense of certainty in our rightness and their wrongness and remain open to all of these possibilities.
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Jalal al-Din Rumi
If the other side is ignorant, it would be as simple as informing them — but if they were too stupid to understand or too selfish to care, what can we do apart from rise up against them? It is from here that the us vs them battle begins.
This is why we try to fight the other side, to overwhelm them with force rather than try to engage with their reasons for believing what they do. I lament that people do not realise how tragic this view is — from the outset, it is presumed that words will not reach them. If only we could connect with our own fallibility.
We do not try to understand and engage with the real reasons why people believe differently to us; we instead engage in battle and try to move them with force. This does not work.
When I say force here, what I mean is that we apply pressure — a type of coercion — in lieu of an honest criticism of the other person’s reasons.
To make things crystal clear:
We act as if a person was their beliefs — and make the issue about their integrity or intelligence — we apply social pressure in place of explanation.
But this cannot work.
The problem here is simple: How can a person honestly believe a proposition if they don’t understand it?
Explanation is the lever by which minds are actually changed.
If you try to guilt a person into not holding a view, what you really achieve is you force them to conceal their views. They will know that if they express a viewpoint, they will face condemnation or social ostracisation — but they won’t know why they were wrong.
There is something more odious than this though.
If people are forced to conceal their ideas, it is no longer possible to criticise them.
The effects of this can be seen in the real world; the example that first comes to mind is in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The polls predicted that Hillary Clinton had twice the chance of winning as Donald Trump. Democrats were feeling secure as victory was close at hand.
But we all know what happened next.
Why is it that we were so wrong in our predictions? How did we fail to prevent Donald Trump from taking his seat in the Oval Office?
We have reason to believe it has to do with preference falsification.
There was a mismatch between what people were saying their preferences were, and their real choices. This very likely involved both intentional lies and self-deception.
Last year, something similar happened here in Australia. We had a federal election, and despite the polls stating that Climate Change was considered the most critical issue among voters, we voted in the Liberals; a right-wing party whose leader has been explicitly hostile on this front.
A friend of mine who is much more right-leaning than me, told me that in her circles of conservative friends it was common-practice to conceal their preferences. Whenever a polling organisation, or any similar group wanted to know who they were voting for, they would always say Labour (the more left-wing of our two parties).
Do you remember Gary Johnson? I didn’t think so.
He was one of the third party Presidential Candidates running up against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He had garnered a substantial following, but when the day of the election came, this support collapsed, and it all seemed to go to Trump.
Many Trump voters lied, but they probably felt they had no choice. It would not have been sustainable for them to go on being hated by their children and ostracised by their coworkers. Coercion and lies go hand-in-hand.
My point here is that when we resort to fighting, when we resort to social pressure as a means of shifting a person’s views, we are causing them to conceal them. This does the opposite of what we want; it renders the view immune to criticism and serves as the perfect barrier to making progress in the conversation.
The thoughts in this part of the letter came from this conversation on twitter.
We view conversations as impossible — so we imagine that there is an enemy that we must defeat. When we do this, conversation really does become intractable. We force people to conceal their views from our righteous fury, and when this is the case — discussion is off the table, and there is no longer a way to criticise and improve each other’s views.
Cancel culture is the epitome of this. I have friends who have told me that they were afraid to make posts on social media, or work on problems they were interested in out of fear of endangering their future employment prospects. The sad thing is this may even be a legitimate concern, I have seen outrage sparked against people merely for liking a tweet years ago.
Recently, a man I admire, the wonderful Steven Pinker, has come under fire by those wanting him removed as a distinguished academic fellow in Linguistics Society of America. Steven is a psychologist and a linguist, as well as the author of many books, several which I have read and loved.
The evidence given in an open letter against him include six tweets, including one dating back to 2014. I wonder how many of the signatories of the letter have actually read any of his books — they evidently fail to see the thoughtful, kind academic that I perceive. Imagining that there are people out there filled with visceral indignation to the gentle, mild-mannered Steven is enough to make me cringe.
Happily, their attempt has completely failed, with colleagues and respected academics rising in Steven’s defence including the linguists Noam Chomsky, Barbara Partee, John McWhorter and the scientists Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne and Nicholas Christakis.
Steven is a person who has dedicated much of his life to clear communication. These people have decided that he was beyond the use of words.
The tragedy of cancel culture is that it presumes that communication cannot even begin. As if it was easier to simply stop everyone from expressing different views than for people to engage and have productive conversations. The cherry on top is that it prevents real progress from taking place, when both sides are afraid to voice their views, then neither can update them.
What we need is to replace this culture of cancelling, with a culture of conversation.
Before I let you go, I want to leave you with two tools to improve your ability to have conversations. I believe that if everyone took these into account, we would make more progress in our collective thinking.
The straw-man fallacy is a well-known failure in discourse, where you criticise a weaker form of a person’s argument.A steelman is the precise opposite of this. Rather than engaging with a weaker argument, you take the opposing argument and make it as strong as possible. You put it in words that your opponent will heartily endorse. When it is clear that they know that you understand the reasons behind their position, then only do you engage with it.
The key to a steelman is that you put your opponent’s position in words that they can happily accept as representing their position.
You are not trying to trap them, that is; you are not trying to say “gotcha”. You are honestly trying to understand the reasons behind their beliefs.
A dialectic is an effort by two or more people to arrive at the truth. It is not one person trying to push their framing of the world on another, but people with different ideas acknowledging that they are fallible and wanting to refine their ideas.
To understand why I bring up dialectic I would like to contrast it with the more traditional format: The debate.
In a debate, we have a zero-sum game; there is one winner and one loser. To win a debate, you must discredit the other person. Discussion is contingent on a needless conflict, and changing one’s views is explicitly made the losing condition.
In a dialectic, the various parties come together, with different ideas and knowledge and collaboratively try to come to truth. It is a joint effort to understand each other and the world. From this point of view, being proven wrong is a success, it is the chance to refine our ideas and deepen our understanding of reality.
The marvellous Karl Popper expounded upon the differences between the two in his 1994 book The Myth of the Framework
We have to unlearn the habit of framing the discussion as a fight, and remember how to have a proper conversation. One where we do not strive for victory against enemies, but come to truth as fellow fallible humans; friends.
This section of the letter was largely reworked from my October 2019 piece Insert Label Here ↩︎
This is not to say all of them lied in this way. Some would have engaged in self-deception, feeling guilty about wanting to vote for someone their friends and loved ones hated but their preferences were revealed when they were at the booth. People can have a hard ↩︎