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How Can We Talk To Each Other?

Don’t expect Facebook to fix our national political dialogue. Yes, people “share” fake and misleading  stories and photos, thousands, sometimes millions of times, and this would be less likely to happen if Facebook could weed out the untruths, but engaging in spreading clearly erroneous reports is only a small part of the problem. The style in which we discuss issues, not only on social media, but in the news media, creates anger and division among people and diverts conversations away from both the truth and from constructive dialogue. This is true for all sides on all issues.

Is there a way to carry on conversations that lead to greater understanding, both of issues and of each other’s beliefs about them and which might result in constructive approaches to those issues? I believe there is, but is that something most people want? Facebook was not designed to be a forum for opponents to come together to resolve their differences. It was designed to be a platform that would allow friends and like-minded individuals to come together to share social experiences and in the process overcome social isolation. It may be working with regard to this goal, but an unintended consequence (in addition to the sharing of fake information) is that when people limit their conversations to those who agree with them, the processes of groupthink result in the modal opinions becoming more extreme and more hostile to differing opinions (and the people who hold them). So most people don’t access Facebook to learn to understand others’ opinions or to change their own beliefs, and, unless they are simply sharing cat pictures, they may find themselves becoming more extreme in their opinions and more hostile to people who don’t agree with them.

Beyond Facebook, our national media spends more time and space on presenting opinions than news. CNN, FOX and MSNBC routinely discuss each new political story among “panels” of pundits representing opposite sides and opinions, who then argue with each other. Radio talk-show hosts are renowned for their in-your-face presentation of  single viewpoints, offered in more extreme manner  than their counterparts on television. Even a newspaper such as the New York Times presents its front-page news stories in an opinion format (e.g. today’s front page, above-the-fold headlines included, “Trump Brand and Statecraft: A Hazy Divide,” and “Forming Cabinet, A Staid Process Turns Spectacle”).

One can argue that at least a diversity of opinion is being presented and the reader, watcher, or listener can pick and choose among them, but people choose the media outlet they are most likely to agree with most of the time, so they are driven further into their respective corners and exposed to less and less of opposing opinions, except as something to denigrate. But even the more neutral media programs, such as NBC’s “Meet The Press” includes the same array of pundits from the left and right disagreeing with each other, just more politely and with less hostility than on the cable channels. People today do not seem to want to be exposed to positions that differ from their own. When Leslie Stahl interviewed Donald Trump on “60 Minutes,” she was criticized by one side for being too critical of him and by the other as being too lenient, and “normalizing” his, for them, abnormal positions. When Steve Inskeep interviewed an alt-right proponent on  NPR, whose listeners tend to be liberal, the public radio station received numerous complaints for “normalizing” racist views by exploring them on air.

Many people do not even claim to want to establish a dialogue with those who disagree with them politically. They either feel it would be fruitless, or that their opponents don’t deserve to be listened to, or that they have been too “hurt” or “sickened” or “angered” by the recent election or its aftermath to allow themselves to face those they now despise.

A divided nation will not solve its problems. Neither will one that brings everyone together in agreement on an erroneous premise or conclusion (as we saw in the 2003 Iraq invasion). The only solution is to bring people together in agreement on the closest thing we can come to with regard to the truth and the best course of action. To do that, we need to change the way we talk to each other. It’s not up to Facebook or Twitter or CNN or Fox News to alter its ways in order for us to achieve a civil conversation with each other. They will change their ways when we show them we are tired of fake news, opinion instead of news, slander, and fallacious arguments. We’re not going to be tired of these things unless we arrive at a definition of what are their opposites.

There are a number of well-known “informal fallacies” that apply to argumentation. We could improve our dialogues if we were aware enough to spot them and prohibit them as well as to stop using them ourselves. These include the “argument ad hominem,” which is to disregard what someone is saying by undermining his or her credibility or character (the last presidential election was a case study in this technique). There is also appealing to emotions, and the use of a damning question to begin an argument (do you really want to elect a [criminal] [racist] as your next president?). Some arguments beg the question, by asserting questionable premises for their arguments, such as in saying, “America is [worse-off] [better off] than it’s been in decades. We need to [change] [keep] the people who are running the country.”

Beyond recognizing when we are either using or are faced with our interlocutors using such fallacious methods of argumentation, there are some other civil rules of discourse that we could each attempt to follow. The Norwegian philosopher and activist Arne Naess, who originated the Deep Ecology movement, was a follower of Gandhi and he was adamant that Gandhi’s non-violent principles extended to and in fact, must extend to the way we discuss things with each other, both as a matter of principle and because it is the only way to achieve productive discussions. Naess formulated several rules for conversations:

1.     Avoid evasion. Keep to the point, even though it may sometimes harm one’s own position and clever evasion would strengthen it. An answer to the question, does Donald Trump’s behavior rise to the level of sexual predation?— that Bill Clinton did worse—is an evasion. An answer to the question, did Hillary Clinton lie about passing classified information through her server?—that the FBI did not file any charges against her—is an evasion.
2.     Avoid biased renderings of other people’s views. Don’t characterize another’s viewpoint inaccurately in order to further your own. If someone argues that there may be areas where liberals and Donald Trump agree, don’t characterize that person as “normalizing the behavior of a racist and misogynist.” If someone wants to place controls on the sale of guns, don’t characterize them as ‘wanting to get rid of our second amendment rights.”
3.     Don’t be ambiguous in an attempt to mislead. Someone who says that he favors “energy independence” when he means increased oil and natural gas drilling within our country’s borders, is being deliberately ambiguous, as is someone who asks for “common sense gun laws” when he means restricting the possession of handguns. After all, eventually the exact thing one is arguing for or against will have to be confronted.
4.     Avoid tendentious argument from alleged implications. Do not claim that your opponent supports a conclusion you believe follows from his argument unless he or she agrees that it follows. There is an all-too-common tendency for people to argue that because someone supports A, and, in our opinion, B follows from A, then that person supports B. An example would be arguing that, because someone questions whether historically, increases in CO2 produced global warming trends, he “rejects climate science.” In fact many climate scientists agree that the historical relationship between CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperatures may be highly complex and differs from the common perception. 

5.     Avoid biased first-hand reports that convey a distorted or false impression. This style of argument particularly characterizes media presentations, which provide evidence of “facts” with singular reports from individuals as if they are typical or represent a much bigger cohort. The notorious uproar against “superpredators” in the 1990’s was fueled by reports of individual incidents that distorted the frequency and typicality of  aggressive behavior among Black teens.

6.     Avoid biased use of contextsAvoid creating a non-neutral context for a discussion by such things as using derogatory language about the speaker, or his or her associates, etc. The headlines in the New York Times cited earlier are an example of this. A headline that says, "Forming Cabinet, A Staid Process Turns Spectacle” has already set up the reader to believe that there will be discussion of indecorous behavior in the way the new president is putting together and announcing his cabinet choices. To begin a discussion of immigration with the statement that you are eager to hear “the liberal, identity politics justification of why criminals who rape and murder should be allowed to break the law and remain in our country” is probably  not going to lead to a productive dialogue.

The above are Arne Naess’ recommendations for having a civil, productive discussion. Combining these rules with vigilance for the presence of informal fallacies in the arguments presented, both one’s own and one’s opponent, may improve how we talk to each other and lead to discussions that actually promote understanding. Such discussions may even lead to solutions to some of our problems.

Of course the first step is to begin talking to those with whom we don’t agree.

Reader Comments (1)

Casey, you are being reasonable, but my emotions are not quite there yet.

November 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSara Murrieta

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