The Jury Talks Back


Why Real Conversation Has Become Increasingly Impossible

Filed under: Uncategorized — Patterico @ 8:08 am

A couple more Sam Harris podcasts provide the jumping off point today for a discussion of the impediments to conversation I see in today’s world: a lack of respect for reason, and a lack of shared values.

Yesterday at the gym I was listening to a Harris podcast from a live event he did with Ben Shapiro and Eric Weinstein. (All hail the Intellectual Dark Web!) Shapiro says here that “basic concepts like reason are being thrown out,” citing two examples: one from the right and one from the left. Shapiro cites the Roy Moore debacle, saying that the evidence was compelling that Roy Moore engaged in improper activity with underage girls — yet many people on the right will deny it. From the left, you can say something simple like: there are two sexes, a male sex and a female sex . . . and people will lose their minds. I’ll give you a snippet from 21:16 to 24:24, but the whole thing is worth listening to:

Shapiro says the “loss of common values” like “human reason and objective truth” have been lost, and that we no longer have a common framework for conversation. People have a difficult time having a conversation with others because the others will “change the terms they are using, they’ll change the frame of reference they are using, and then they’ll toss reason out altogether.”

I think this well encapsulates what interferes with conversation these days: lack of reason and a lack of common values.

I’ll start with the jettisoning of reason. What I mean by this is mainly the phenomenon of people talking past one another, rather than grappling with each other’s points. Anyone who has ever had a discussion on the Internet has experienced this. I believe it is the default mode of Internet communication, at least regarding politics. It is almost a miracle to find a person with whom you disagree, who is willing to actually listen to what you say, take it seriously without mischaracterizing it, and respond with their own argument that addresses your viewpoint in a honest and forthright manner.

Far more common than such rare honest conversation is the employment of any number of intellectually dishonest techniques that superficially resemble actual debate, but are in fact techniques for dissembling. The strategies are so many in number that a full taxonomy would be impossible, but off the top of my head, here are several I commonly see: recharacterizing what the other person said in some unfair way to make their point sound less effective; asking why you’re even discussing the topic at all when some other topic x is more important; pointing out that other people have engaged in the same behavior y that the opponent is complaining about; completely ignoring the point that the other person made and holding forth about some related but different topic; making the conversation about the character of the person with whom you are speaking rather than the ideas they are discussing; and the list goes on.

Two things are important to notice here. First, a bad faith actor can ruin a conversation even when his opponent is fair-minded. Second, even smart people use these bad faith techniques routinely. A great example of people talking past each other can be found on Harris’s podcast with Ezra Klein about Charles Murray, race, and IQ. The “conversation” (if you can call it that) lasts over two hours, and yet Klein does not address any of the key points that Harris makes. Harris spends the conversation repeatedly making the point that he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to Murray’s policy preferences, but that data are data, and when you refuse to acknowledge that, you’re in a dangerous place. Harris acknowledges his concern about the history of racial inequality in our nation and says that we have to approach the problem from an honest perspective. Klein spends the two hours avoiding Harris’s arguments, suggesting that Harris is a privileged white boy who doesn’t care about blacks, and bemoaning social policies that Harris has already said he is not necessarily defending. Klein is smug and utterly dishonest. He’s a very smart guy. He just doesn’t use reason to argue. He uses a facsimile of it.

I’m not sure this is a trend, by the way. Although I see this more commonly on the Internet these days than I used to, that may reflect the fact that I am in more Internet arguments than I used to be in, rather than reflecting some kind of overall decrease in the use of reason.

Let me turn now to our lack of shared values. For me, this is the most distressing part of the argument that I see literally all the time now, in the era of Donald Trump, that we have to “fight fire with fire” or “use the rules of the left against them.” It leads to a lack of any values that we can hold up as important, that we both share, as a foundation for further conversation.

Let me begin by acknowledging one sense in which I think it is appropriate to “fight fire with fire.” I think it can be justified to do this if you pick your target carefully — meaning you pick an actual person who has engaged in bad behavior, and not just a member of a group that has people who have engaged in bad behavior — and then you show that how they are acting incorrectly, by your engaging in their exact behavior as a performative to demonstrate why the behavior is wrong.

For example, if I am on Twitter and I point out that a particular politician is immoral because they have engaged in adultery, and someone comes along and says “Whatabout Bill Clinton? You loved it when he did what he did in the Oval Office!” I feel justified in telling that person that I am going to use their exact behavior in interacting with them. If they attempt to make a logical point, I will respond with unfounded assumptions about their political beliefs. I will respond to every question they ask about any topic by responding with a non sequitur about Bill Clinton. I will explain why I am doing this: not because it’s wonderful to all of a sudden have an excuse to act like an asshole, but to show them that they did this to me, and they shouldn’t.

This strategy always fail to impart the lesson, but it’s not immoral to try it.

Far too often, however, we see this pattern. I will say: “it’s wrong for a person to engage in behavior x” and someone from “my side” will use some variant of the “fight fire with fire” argument. They will feel no need to show that the target of their immoral behavior actually did the same immoral behavior in the past. It will be enough that the person is a member of “the left” — and surely someone from “the left” has done some similar bad thing. The assumption is that “the left” is winning All The Wars because they are uniquely hard-headed enough to engage in immoral behavior x, and by God, the right needs to wake up and engage in immoral behavior x as well, or Civilization Will Be Lost.

And so we get stuff like this:

I never heard of Colin Kahl before that tweet, and I’d be willing to bet that before Kurt Schlichter cheered the use of a black ops firm to go after the guy’s family, Kurt Schlichter never heard of him either. No matter. The guy is an Obama guy, and didn’t Obama people engage in bad behaviors a, b, and c? Well of course they did! So therefore screwing with this guy’s family is now moral. It’s the New Rules! Ha ha! We used your rules against you!

This sort of thing isn’t really about holding the other side to their standards. Increasingly, it is simply about rationalizing bad behavior. The thing is, almost every bad actor on Earth, now and throughout human history, has rationalized their bad behavior in the same way. Al Qaeda and ISIS actually believe they are/were giving America a taste of its own medicine. Hitler believed he was getting back at the Jews in some way for a “stab in the back” that caused the loss of World War I. And has nobody on the right ever visited a hard left blog or their comments sections? They are crawling with people who believe that the right has uniquely been hard-headed in its use of immoral tactics, and that it’s high time the left got wise and started engaging in the same activity.

When people use these sorts of arguments as a transparent way to rationalize immoral behavior, simply because they enjoy engaging in immoral behavior, I no longer feel I share any values with them. If I can’t start our conversation by saying: “I think we can all agree that, absent extreme situations that rarely apply in normal life, people (including people in public life) should not engage in behavior x” and have you agree, where behavior x is clearly immoral, you and I have no common framework for discussion.

The perfect storm, of course, is to combine both of the factors I have bemoaned here: a lack of respect for reason (grappling with your opponent’s argument) together with a “we have fight fire with fire or we will lose” mentality. For example, I can say with certainty that some people will respond to my comments about shared moral values by repeating the mantra that we have to do what the left does or we’ll lose, and people like me who whine about principles just can’t see that. That both jettisons reason (because you’re talking past my entire argument here) and rationalizes bad behavior — both of the problems I have outlined here. And yet I know it will happen.

In the past, I would get frustrated with such people. This blog has always been somewhat unique in that the proprietor historically gets in the comments and engages. But as more of the discussions become arguments, I find myself frustrated enough that I am coming to recognize that many conversations simply aren’t worth having. That the first rule of discussion is to identify whether the person in question is the sort who engages in the sort of behaviors I have described here. (Oddly, the two behaviors often go hand in hand.) If they do, I simply won’t talk to them. I have recognized that such discussions are a waste of time. Indeed, to avoid the temptation to be sucked into such discussions, I actively use tools (blocking on Twitter, a comment script here) to avoid even seeing commentary from such people.

Dishonest people characterize my actions in doing this as my avoiding debate. That of course ignores everything I just said about how I seek out honest debate. Meaning that people who make comments like that are engaging in the exact lack of reason I decry here.

Which is why they are blocked.

Some conversations aren’t worth having, except for the entertainment value inherent in showing how dishonest the other person is acting. (And that entertainment value wears thin quickly.) Sam Harris’s podcast with Klein was amusing to the extent that it gave the listener a chance to hear Harris wallop Klein. But it wasn’t a conversation — and if that’s what Harris was seeking, then having it with Klein was a mistake. Harris should have been able to see, from Klein’s entire Internet persona, that Klein is not an honest interlocutor. He should have avoided the discussion entirely — unless the entertainment value of the walloping is what he was after. (Sometimes I engage in discussion with dishonest actors for the same entertainment value.)

But if you can’t use reason and find shared basic values with me, you’re not worth my time. That’s what I have learned, and Harris’s podcasts have helped illuminate that point for me.

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