How to overcome the identity divide
Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay on the importance of understanding our ideological opponents.
Political divides are nothing new, but something about the past few years seems qualitatively different. Many have reported losing friends and being shunned by family members for their political views. Shocks to the political system like Brexit and Donald Trump, as well as changes to how we communicate via social media, are often blamed. Debate on a whole manner of issues seems to have given way to denunciations of the other side. Conversations with opponents in good faith seem to be vanishingly rare.
Responding to this new polarised landscape, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay have written How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. spiked caught up with them to find out more.
spiked: Why have we become so bad at arguing today? Have things always been this bad?
James Lindsay: I don’t know if it’s always been this bad. I think that there has been a real effort to politicise more things. The phrase you hear from the left is ‘the personal is political’. And then you see the mirror image happening from the right.
I also think that we’re in a much more contentious phase of politics more generally. Helen Pluckrose [who worked with Lindsay and Boghossian on the ‘grievance studies’ academic hoax] and I refer to the current state we’re in as one of existential polarisation. The reason you see people just go with their tribe is they feel like there is an existential threat to our planet, to our species or to our civilisation if the other side gets power. And so then there’s only one thing to do, which is to prevent the existential threat by taking sides and really digging in.
spiked: What role has identity politics played in this polarisation?
Lindsay: Identity politics is the fruit of ‘the personal is political’. In the late 1980s, we saw an explicit push in academic scholarship and activism towards identity politics. Identity politics has always been around, but it wasn’t really admitted to the mainstream. It was seen as radical or extremist. If we go back to the 1960s, you can see the difference between someone like Martin Luther King, who did not practice identity politics – although he did, of course, get into some of the themes – and then Malcolm X, who was explicitly identitarian and for ‘black’ power. His Nation of Islam resulted from the fact that Christianity offered no means to express his ‘blackness’ because in Christianity, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. Identity politics has certainly made conversations more difficult. And I would say this is something we can pin on the extreme left – there has been a definite push to make identity politics central.
Researchers Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (in The Rise of Victimhood Culture) and other sociologists talk about a concept called ‘competitive victimhood’. Essentially, what happens is once one group starts playing identity politics, especially through claims to victimhood and by using offence-taking as a political tool, then you’ll see other groups starting to play the same game and create their own victimhood narratives.
The research we did for How to Have Impossible Conversations shows that when you get into identity matters, those are the conversations with the deepest levels of difficulty. That’s where people don’t budge and they literally start to freak out. The three layers of difficulty are ‘facts’ at the top – the least trouble. Emotions are the next level down and are very difficult. And then identity. When identity politics starts coming into the picture, the conversation becomes almost impossible.
Peter Boghossian: That’s why, for example, if you look at the issues that are extraordinarily divisive in the US, a lot of those relate to trans issues, like trans bathrooms and trans women in sports. A little while ago, it was gay marriage, but this is widely accepted now except among fringe elements of society. But anything that has an identity-level salience puts the conversation into hard mode.
spiked: So how can we have impossible conversations?
Boghossian: Before you even talk about impossible conversations, you have to go back to just conversations. I really do think that we’ve lost something fundamental in that. Before you do anything you have to think about what is the goal of a conversation. Why are you in the conversation? Is it just to survive Christmas or Thanksgiving? And are you really listening and understanding?
Firstly, don’t start by attacking another person’s idea. Make sure you understand it to the extent that you can express it even more clearly than they can. Make them want to say, ‘Oh, I wish I had thought of that’. Mention things you have learnt from them, too.
What we have now is everybody running around spouting conclusions, but very few people are talking about how they came to their conclusions. It’s called epistemology – how you know what you think you know. And so we suggest ways to ask targeted questions based upon the Socratic method. And that’s what Socrates did – he organises conversations around questions, not topics. He asked people how they knew what they thought. The Socratic method is the skeleton and we have put flesh on that with research from hostage situations, cult exiting, drug and alcohol treatment, and prison interventions. A lot of my dissertation and previous work was around prisons.
So that will get you up to moderately difficult conversations. But you need a whole new skill set for impossible conversations. That’s chapters six and seven of the book, where we talk about introducing scales into questions. You can ask, on a scale from one to 10, how confident are you in this? Scales are incredibly powerful tools that enable you to understand how firmly someone believes something. An example we use in the book is the patriarchy. We often hear that we live in a patriarchy. But instead of the conversation devolving into ‘Yes, we do’ or ‘No, we don’t’, ask the person you disagree with to put it on a scale. Let’s say Saudi Arabia is a nine out of 10 in patriarchy, where is the United States? And then you can better situate their belief.
One notch up from that, for advanced, very difficult conversations, we also recommend using ‘confirmation questions’. And those are simple questions, like: ‘Under what conditions could that belief be false?’ As a general rule, these techniques work best used together.
And then, to answer your question directly, there are impossible conversations, where the gulf is seemingly unbridgeable. This is when you ask how confident another person is in a belief on a scale and they say 10 or even 11. ‘I’m 11 confident Jesus walked on water’ or ‘I’m 11 confident we need to build a massive wall between the US and Mexico’ (it doesn’t matter what the belief is – it could also be ‘We don’t need a wall’).
For these, you need to start reframing your points in their moral language. This is much more complicated. And in order to get there, you need to start having good regular conversations.
Some other fundamentals include using the phrase ‘I hear you’ or asking calibrated questions. A calibrated question is a ‘how’ or a ‘why’ question. A non-calibrated question would be, ‘Do you feel good today?’. You will say yes or no. Whereas if I ask a how or a why question, you give more words and it’s more conducive to conversation.
You can’t just jump into the impossible. You have to start at the basic level and then move your way forward.
spiked: What successes can you point to in terms of bridging divides and changing people’s minds?
Lindsay: The most high-profile example of somebody who is successfully changing people’s minds across really, really broad gulfs is the black jazz musician, Daryl Davis, who talks klansmen out of their hoods. I don’t think I’ve had that level of success yet!
I’m a liberal atheist who lives in the south. Most of my friends are conservatives or libertarians and most of them are Christians. Talking across religious and political divides has been a mainstay of my adult life. Certainly going through and learning the material we wrote in the book has been instrumental for me in navigating and enriching those relationships. Success is really in terms of just being able to have the conversations – not so much changing people’s minds as opening their minds to hear from another perspective. For instance, they will realise that ‘He’s an atheist, but he’s a good person and I can listen to him and take his ideas more seriously’. That’s actually nine-tenths of the battle. If your goal is to change somebody’s mind, then commit yourself not to just one conversation but to a series of conversations. These things take time.
spiked: How can you bridge divides on identity?
Lindsay: Identity doesn’t move easily. Usually, people have lots of defences to prevent that. When you have a conversation around identity or that has identity-level salience, you really have to affirm the other person’s identity. If they feel like their identity is under threat, they are not going to get past that point. Similarly, in an ‘emotional’ conversation, you have to acknowledge that they are justified in feeling whatever emotion they feel, even if that emotion is not productive. There has to be a level of acknowledgement and recognition.
A great example is the anti-vax movement. Most of those people are not going to be motivated by being called ‘anti-science’ or by being ‘evil’ – or whatever you think they are. They are motivated by wanting to be good parents. And if you can’t begin by acknowledging and affirming that they are at least trying to be good parents, then your conversation is not going to get anywhere with them. That’s one crucial piece.
As for political divides, usually, when you’re talking to people on the left, their moral concerns are going to be primarily ‘care versus harm’. They also have a particular view of fairness that means people aren’t being cheated out of their opportunities. If you can’t phrase what you’re doing in terms of recognising those moral intuitions and appealing to them, then you’re not going to get anywhere.
On the other hand, conservatives are probably going to be worried about community or societal cohesion. Loyalty is also very important to them. So you’re going to have to try to appeal to those kinds of things when making your argument or you’ll have a hard time reaching them. Learning to speak in another person’s moral language is an important component, albeit a very difficult component.
spiked: Has there been any backlash to the book? Often people say there’s no need to have conversations about difficult issues because they have already been resolved.
Boghossian: The best response to that comes from Socrates. He asks a simple question: Why?
It is my belief that we can reason how to live a better life. And we can reason how to solve problems together. Even problems with no moral valence whatsoever – such as taking plastics out of the ocean – the only way to solve them is by having a conversation about it. Because if you don’t do that, then you just have a strongman or a dictator telling you what to do. The idea that you wouldn’t want to talk to somebody, there’s something deeply tragic about that because that robs people of an opportunity to challenge and question their own beliefs and to become more humble about what it is that they think they know.
Lindsay: We have had some of that kind of pushback. There is a general attitude that you’re tapping into that, on certain issues, there is the ‘right side of history’. Or people say, ‘It’s 2019 and we still have to talk about this?’. There’s definitely a very widespread attitude that certain conversations are just over, and there’s no reason to have them. As well as Socrates, another good answer comes from John Stuart Mill, which Peter started to touch on. Mill points out that if you only know your own side of the argument, then you know little of that.
There is always the need to be able to defend the views you have. If you say that the conversation is settled, then all it takes is somebody who is relatively skilled in rhetoric who can score a couple of points, or raise a couple of doubts that catch people’s interest and then you are the one looking like he doesn’t have answers.
I’m a liberal. So let’s say the left is pushing nuance around immigration off the table. I’m not going to enter that conversation because I’m going to start getting called a racist and a xenophobe and everything else. Instead, you’ll have some absolute lunatic from the far right come in and say ‘these immigrants are ruining our country’. Even if people feel that maybe this is two per cent true and that there are real issues that are being ignored, you’ve now got to contend with the fact that the lunatic now looks like a credible truth-teller.
Boghossian: And the other problem with that is that the people who have these moral impulses or intuitions about things like immigration – especially college kids – they don’t know how to actually respond properly. They just call people Nazis. They don’t have the moral infrastructure to deal with these questions because they’ve never heard opposing arguments to them.
Lindsay: One of my favourite examples of this is actually, having grown up in the south, I understand the southern argument in favour of the Confederate flag. I don’t actually agree with it but I know where it’s coming from. Whenever there’s some controversy around the Confederate flag, I’m going to see flags up every time I drive to the store for the next month. You have a bunch of the people who support it, screaming some slogan like ‘Heritage, not hate’. And then the other people say, ‘It’s slavery. It’s hate.’ And there is no attempt to understand one another whatsoever. I think that the moral force of the argument lies on the left side, but because the left can’t even listen to the right and understand its perspective, it goes nowhere.
This kind of tragedy comes up a lot. A fundamental rule of thumb is: if somebody feels like you’re not listening to them, they’re not going to listen back. You aren’t going to be able to convince somebody of your view if they don’t feel heard. We talk about first listening and, second, modelling the behaviour you want to see. Actually, a surprising number of the techniques in the book could be boiled down to listening and listening well.
Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay were talking to Fraser Myers
How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide is published by Lifelong Books. Buy it from Amazon (UK).
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