The Death (and rebirth) of Conversation

I recently published an article that generated some conversation on social media and I wanted to take some time to reflect on why it seems so hard to have conversations with people you disagree with, especially politically.

(1) First, there is an ambiguity to words. We can make them mean multiple things and it's not apparent which definition someone is using. An example that came up in the discussion was the term: white supremacy. The more narrow definition would be: a belief that the white race is superior. The broader definition is applied to the structures of society that give white people advantage (or privilege) and individuals who are said to harbor implicit biases. When someone uses this word in conversation it takes extra effort to figure out which definition is active. While sometimes the effort is worth it, if there are enough words like this where definitions and meanings have to be parsed, the work load becomes unmanageable. Not having a shared language where we agree on the general definitions of things is one large hurdle to being able to communicate effectively and increasingly people who have differing political opinions also have differing definitions of words.

(2) Not only are our words ambiguous but our intentions are hidden as well. Our desires and motivations exist in a black box of intentionality that can only be guessed at. Everyone has had to contend with bad actors in the past, people who've deceived us, told us their intentions were one thing when they actually were another. Because of this we're rightly suspect of why people seem to be making the arguments they're making, and may jump to conclusions as to what their true motivations are. The ambiguity of intentionality leaves us room to insert whatever motivations we want in our conversational opponent, and one strategy that seems to naturally develop in a heated argument is to insert the worst intentions into them, to treat them like the most cartoon version of the enemy. In this way, we make their words mean whatever we want them to mean, and can start to mold their argument towards what we want them to be saying, not what they are intending to say.

(3) This dynamic gets exponentially increased given the direness which we perceive the state of the world.  If you believe that our government has been taken over by The Deep State, that our politicians are participating in child sex rings, and that they are poisoning our air and water with mind controlling chemicals, then you may not feel that you have the time to waste debating definitions of words or motivations. Similarly, if you feel that Capitalism is an evil force that has entirely corrupted our government, that every white person secretly harbors notions of supremacy and that all Republicans are secretly Nazi's desiring an ethno-state, then you may also be less inclined to engage in the slow change that both democracy and conversation require. You feel you know exactly what's wrong with the world and anyone that stands in your way from accomplishing your goals is dooming the future of humanity. Because the problem seems so obvious, and because the problem is perceived as an existential risk, people may become increasingly suspect of those who don't perceive this problem and who question or stand in the way of accomplishing it. 

(4) People are generally good at thinking small and locally and get worse when they're asked to think large and globally. Take yourself as an example. What predictions can you make about your life in the next 5 years? That's actually a pretty hard thing to do. Given that most people are bad at making long term predictions about their own lives, we should expect that we're even worse at making predictions about complicated global/economic/social/political events, where the information is often contained in simplistic narratives that reduce the variables down to such a degree that it hardly resembles the reality in which we are trying to describe. 

Because this is such a hard problem and because we cannot exist without explanatory narratives for the events swirling around us, we stick to these simplistic narratives that often have singular chains of causation. Unsurprisingly, given the thrust of my work, I cannot help pointing out that these narratives are metaphorical. We talk about the United States and Capitalism as if they are people with dreams and desires. We frame these issues in ways that create mass generalizations. For instance, the United States is composed of 325 million people. These individuals do not all share the same dreams and desires, but it is quite easy to bundle them up metaphorically into a single individual with a single motivation that explains a single world event.

(5) We not only metaphorically generalize about large scale events, but bring those generalizations down to the local level as well. We replace specific information, a single human being, with their broader group category. Instead of dealing with Bob, or Michael or Susan they are replaced with the category of (black person) or (white person) or (white male) or (black female). In conversation when we stop treating someone like an individual we stop being sensitive to their meaning, and people know when they're being flattened out and misunderstood in this way, and it creates alienation, mistrust and resentment.

These five variables, (1) the ambiguity of words and the divergence of political language, (2) the black box of intentionality, (3) the existential threat we see in the world, (4) the simplistic metaphorical narratives we create and finally (5) the desire to place the general over the specific, are five key elements that I see that make conversations difficult. To me conversation is one of the most pleasurable experiences in the world. I love mind melding with people, batting ideas back and forth and feeling like we are getting closer to a shared understanding even over the smallest of things, which is why when things start to get in the way of this happening it's worrisome to me. Hopefully by recognizing these issues, by identifying the problems and addressing them directly, I can more effectively engage in the slow and steady change that good conversation brings, and I look forward to trying to address each and every one of these problems the next time I find myself in a difficult conversation.