A review of Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay’s Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (2019)
and announcing the Letter Wiki Impossible Conversations Competition
James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian’s new book is a step-by-step instruction manual on how to discuss emotive and controversial topics without losing friends, alienating people or developing a reputation as a bore. Drawing on Boghossian’s work helping prison inmates develop better moral reasoning skills, hostage negotiation techniques and street epistemology—brief, friendly conversations with strangers to encourage them to doubt deeply held but irrational beliefs—the authors outline a series of exercises that can gradually nudge people away from dogmatic certainty and towards greater openness to new ideas.
At its core, the method is based on Socratic dialogue. This involves a shift in focus. Rather than presenting your side of the argument and backing that up with facts, statistics and citations, in this method, you encourage your interlocutor to explain her point of view. You should not behave like a high school debater or a barrister presenting closing arguments—and even less like a preacher or a lecturer—instead employ genial questioning. Interview her—in a style which owes less to the Grand Inquisitor and more to Joe Rogan. Avoid conversational one-upmanship, they warn. Learn to listen.
The approach is grounded in one central principle: you cannot change another person’s mind for her. You can, however, coax her into re-examining her assumptions. To explain to someone what you believe, why you believe it and how you came to believe it, you are first obliged to reflect on and formulate your thoughts. It’s like checking your arithmetic. Shouting at a person that his sums don’t add up will not convince him. But ask him to show you how he arrived at the total and, as he tots up the figures for you, he may spot his mistake.
Caring About The Right Things
The first important requirement in this enterprise is, of course, to show your conversation partner that you can be trusted. Boghossian and Lindsay recommend taking to heart the Southern US proverb, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This sounds corny, but the authors’ interpretation of the saying is nuanced. It’s not about your personal relationship with your conversational partner—in fact, it can often be easier to converse about tricky topics with strangers, whom we are less afraid of offending. Nor is it vital to project enormous enthusiasm about your views: if you are too passionate, you may come across as a brainwashed ideologue, who wants to proselytise, not discuss. The authors explain,
The key … is recognizing the proper object of the verb care. It isn’t “care about the topic,” and it isn’t even “care about the people” … it’s care about the right things … to win your partner’s trust across a moral divide, you must be able to demonstrate that you care about … the values your partner cares about.
One way of doing this, as the writers point out, is to use Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory to identify which values your interlocutor is likely to hold most dear and show that you also believe they are important. Liberals, Haidt argues, are most concerned with prevention of harm, while conservatives generally prioritise loyalty and fairness and libertarians place freedom above every other value.
But there is another, simpler way to build trust, as Boghossian and Lindsay explain: “point out how extremists on your side go too far.” In our polarised political climate, people on opposite sides of an ideological divide often consume different media, follow different pundits, consult different sources. Since sensationalism sells—colourful lunacy is entertaining—each side indulges in nutpicking. If you’re too ensconced in your echo chamber, it can quickly seem as if the others are mostly ridiculous cranks at best, dangerous madmen at worst, while your side are reasonable, calm moderates. Reassure your interlocutor that you don’t approve of the extremists on your team. Don’t use this as a bargaining chip—I’ll disown our extremists if you disown yours. What the authors call a “transactional” approach will make you seem like a petty and cynical point-scorer. Just agree unequivocally that there are people on your side who go too far and distance yourself from them. This also potentially allows you to make common cause with your conversation partner by appealing to values that transcend partisan differences: “civil society, productive dialogue, and compromise over extremism.”
Epistemological Detective Work
Boghossian and Lindsay’s method focuses on epistemology, which is the study of how and why we come to believe things. To change someone’s mind, they argue, don’t tell her what you think: make her examine what she thinks and—crucially—why. To cite an absurd example from the book, if you believe everything your cat tells you, you have a feline-based epistemology (and should change your meds). In the authors’ opinion, “The most common mistake in conversations is focusing on what people claim to know (beliefs and conclusions) as opposed to how they came to know it (their reasoning processes).” They advocate becoming an “epistemological detective.” Even if you have no hope of persuading someone, you can always learn more about her perspective. You can discover why she holds her opinions—and that information is the key to changing minds.
Examining your beliefs can lead you to realise how many of them have been taken on trust. The authors call this “the Unread Library effect.” We are often firmly convinced of our stances on issues of immense complexity that we’re completely unqualified to judge—Brexit, the Israel-Palestine conflict, nuclear energy. Here in Argentina, for example, people are currently bitterly divided by an election campaign run on economic issues: a topic few understand. Prompting your conversation partner to tell you why he holds the position he does may undermine his certainty. We’ve surely all had the experience Richard Feynman describes here, of trying to explain something only to realise that we don’t understand it ourselves. We can exploit that to create doubt, Boghossian and Lindsay argue:
In many conversations, the more ignorance you admit, the more readily your partner in the conversation will step in with an explanation to help you understand. And the more they attempt to explain, the more likely they are to realize the limits of their own knowledge.
Identity and Belief
Our emotions also blur our vision. In my view, people’s beliefs—however irrational, absurd or paranoid they may seem to others—always appear logical to them. (I disagree with Boghossian on this: see this article.) However, we are easily swayed by our emotional needs. Our reason is, as Jonathan Haidt puts it, a rider on an elephant, an unskilled mahout, perched precariously on the back of the pachyderm of our feelings. And feelings don’t care about your facts.
The feelings involved when we are arguing over beliefs are, Boghossian and Lindsay explain, feelings about identity:
If you’re engaged in a moral conversation, your discussion is always—whether overtly or covertly—about identity issues … it might appear that the conversation is about facts and ideas, but you’re inevitably having a discussion about morality, and that, in turn, is inevitably a discussion about what it means to be a good or bad person. Decoding this connection is vital.
We define who we are largely by what we believe in. This is one reason why, when a conversation partner marshals facts and evidence to debunk our views, we often feel personally attacked. Our convictions influence our personal ethics, which is at the heart of our sense of self. Hence, changing your mind can be difficult and painful and a difference of opinion on an ethically charged subject can feel like a rejection of you as a person. If you convey impeccable calm as you attempt to convince someone to change his mind about something that arouses strong emotions in him, you may simply seem annoyingly supercilious. In addition, you may believe yourself to be a model of rationality and self-control—but perhaps the subject in question just does not form part of your collection of identity-defining core beliefs. If it did, your smug objectivity might well prove a thin veneer.
For this reason, Boghossian and Lindsay argue that, “Offering evidence—facts—almost never facilitates belief revision for any belief with moral, social, or identity-level salience.” The reasons for this may be rooted in evolutionary psychology. We are pack animals: we seek out our tribes and defend their values against outsiders. Jonathan Haidt speculates that, “we evolve to be religious; we evolve to do intergroup conflict; we evolve to make things sacred and encircle around them.” When beliefs become core tenets that define the social groups of which we are part, those beliefs can come to be venerated and questioning them becomes taboo. We no longer view them as opinions circulating out there in the world, but as fundamental parts of ourselves, from which we may be almost as reluctant to be parted as we would be to amputate a limb. To contradict them can feel, to those who are invested in their truth, like an existential threat. Under such circumstances, people may even respond with horrific violence: we may kill people for eating beef, beat a student to death for questioning Islam, burn heretics at the stake over the meaning of a wafer. Convictions of this strength cannot be defeated by a little logic-chopping.
Not all political and religious convictions are, luckily, adhered to with such ferocity. But all politics is, potentially, identity politics: we define ourselves as members of the group that holds x set of beliefs and an attack on x is therefore an attack on us. This is a natural category confusion of which we must remain constantly wary.
Identity politics in its more literal sense unhelpfully encourages this blurring of boundaries. Found in both right- and left-wing variants, identity politics suggests that all members of a demographic—usually defined by sex, sexuality, skin colour, religion or nationality—have shared interests and values that set them apart. The group’s interests are in conflict with those of other groups and must be championed by an organisation under their own leadership. Its spokespeople usually pretend to speak for that entire demographic—no matter how many individuals reject their aims and strategies. Hence the grandiloquent claims to represent, say, a Hindu rashtra (which millions of Hindus oppose) or an English Defence League (which most English people find risible). Hence, also, the many fractured, often warring groups on the Social Justice left, each claiming to be the authentic voice of black people, people of colour, women, trans people, etc.
Identity politics is inherently divisive because, if you don’t share a specific— usually unchosen and immutable—characteristic, you may be automatically viewed as an adversary. To counter this, Boghossian and Lindsay argue, we need to widen the circle, to appeal to our larger shared identity as human beings:
When a conversation centers on race, gender, or any other divisive marker … tempers can flare. If you find the conversation getting heated or stuck, shift the focus to superordinate identity markers instead. Crudely, “You’re white (or Muslim) and I’m black (or Christian), but so what, because we’re both Americans and both human beings.” Notice how this statement moves the conversation toward common ground.
Boghossian and Lindsay’s approach is refreshing. They don’t advocate turning a conversation into a debate. Debating someone is a bit like challenging her to a game of tennis. At its best, it can be intellectually stimulating. Each hard-fought point is bracingly enjoyable—even when it goes against you. It’s fun to watch and satisfying to participate in and afterwards there are no hard feelings. I was on my school debating team and loved it. But, while a good debater may persuade spectators, it is only an effective way of convincing a direct interlocutor if it feels like a game. When the stakes are high—when we are discussing something our conversation partner feels strongly about—the approach is counterproductive precisely because of debate’s ludic, performative qualities. This is what people mean when they say that they shouldn’t have to debate some issue of central importance to them: they don’t want to be toyed with. And, at worst, debates can degenerate into cheap intellectual peacockery. Also, as the authors point out, when you frame your conversation as a competition, you encourage your interlocutor to play to win. Laying out your facts and logic is like throwing your glove into the ring. Expect your opponent to be on guard, ready to put up a fight:
your attempt to talk her out of certain beliefs is more likely to talk her into them. Introducing facts gives her a reason to defend her beliefs against those facts. She’ll then seek out arguments to dismiss your facts and selectively choose facts of her own to bolster her position.
So, if you want to find out more about why people hold irrational and sometimes harmful ideas, wish to change their minds for the better or want to make sure you are not harbouring some really bad ideas yourself, the authors recommend you shift into interviewer mode. Switch from trying to get a message across—by lecturing or by presenting facts and evidence like a logician—to looking at why and how your conversation partner has formed his ideas: “change the subject from their beliefs to how they know their beliefs are true and how their beliefs contribute to their sense of personal identity.” The authors outline multiple specific techniques for doing so—the book lives up to its title’s promise to be practical. But, in addition to these skills, the other important factor is context.
Social Media and Our Discontents
Some early responses to the book have expressed scepticism about the authors’ qualifications to write about fostering civil discourse, given that Lindsay often replies to Twitter antagonists with sarcastic and flippant quips. I don’t consider this a valid critique—not only because I feel that books should be judged on their own merits, but because social media is one of the least congenial venues in which to have a difficult conversation. Ideally, people would behave with exquisite civility and unruffled calm at all times—but this is planet Earth, not Vulcan. To judge someone’s ability to have frank and complex conversations by their interactions on Twitter is like judging a ballerina by her pirouettes—in steel-toed jackboots four sizes too large for her.
Letter Wiki founders Clyde and Dayne Rathbone have described Twitter as the fast food of online interactions. As with fast food, snarky social media interactions can be powerfully addictive. And, as with fast food, rather than scolding people for succumbing to temptation, we should expect fallibility and try to provide healthier environments, to give people a fighting chance to conquer their own worst instincts. As sociologists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have shown, nudges can be far more powerful than messaging campaigns or moralising speeches.
Make it easy for people to choose a better option and you will not need to enforce it. “My Twitter isn’t the best representation of who I actually am,” Lindsay has commented. As anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution will know, we can easily find ourselves making choices that conflict with our goals. As Mansa Keita recently told me, on social media, “This place is a constant struggle to remain who we want to be.” Life already makes it hard enough to stay true to that vision. Social media often makes it even harder.
Of course, social media can have many benefits, especially for those without like-minded real-life friends. But we should not therefore discount the drawbacks. Social media is an attention economy. The traditional platforms are designed for one purpose: to persuade you to keep posting, tweeting, scrolling, responding. They hijack our natural social instincts by providing a sense of connection and intimacy which mimics that of real life, but can feel as dissatisfying as attempting to satisfy a sweet craving with aspartame. One meaningful one-on-one conversation is worth a thousand ‘likes.’ And social media is particularly ill-suited to dialectic and debate, to the kinds of impossible conversations to which Boghossian and Lindsay provide a guide.
Messages and Signals
If you wish to change someone’s mind—or be open to having your own mind changed—you should resist the temptation to begin by trying to get across a message, Boghossian and Lindsay warn:
messengers don’t speak across political and moral divides, or even converse—they deliver messages. Conversations are exchanges. Messages are information conveyed in one-way transactions. Messengers espouse beliefs and assume their audience will listen and ultimately embrace their conclusions.
This is one of the ways in which social media hampers conversation on divisive topics like politics and religion. We begin, generally, with a statement of opinion, a message. Twitter’s character limit can make the message sound slogan-like, while Facebook’s looser requirements often invite emotional outpourings and angry diatribes. This does not encourage intellectual openness: we have now pinned our colours to the mast, in public, hoping—perhaps even waiting anxiously—for the dopamine to hit as the ‘likes’ and approving comments begin to appear. As Boghossian and Lindsay write,
when people have a public conversation they put their pride on the line; consequently, we tend to cling even more tightly to our views in a public forum than in private … Because changing one’s mind or “losing” an argument is perceived as humiliating, it’s no surprise that many discussion threads go viciously awry.
If a status is festooned with enough hearts and positive comments it can feel mildly daunting to disagree. On Facebook, you may be intimidated by the idea of friends and relatives viewing your unusual or controversial opinion. On Twitter, the system of quote-tweets particularly discourages debate. When someone disagrees, instead of responding directly many caption their opponent’s statement with a snarky take-down and brandish it on their own timeline like a hunting trophy, so that their followers can join them in exclaiming on how ignorant, bigoted or ridiculous that person is, always referring to him or her in the third person. We talk about each other more than we talk to each other.
Letter: Possible Conversations
The problems we face in today’s world are increasingly global. The most pressing of these—safeguarding the environment, protecting human rights, combating ignorance and bigotry, preventing warfare—will require cooperation on a massive scale. It is imperative that we learn how to understand each other, that we become more open to different viewpoints and that we discover how to change the minds of those seduced by dangerous, pernicious and inhumane ideas. The internet provides us with an opportunity to converse with a more diverse range of people than ever before, to talk to people we would never have had the opportunity to encounter without the magic of digital technology. Let’s not squander that chance bickering, sloganeering and virtue signalling to our tribes.
“Most basic elements of civil discussion, especially over matters of substantive disagreement, come down to a single theme: making the other person in the conversation a partner, not an adversary,” write Boghossian and Lindsay. We suggest that one way to achieve that is to have a good faith letter exchange of the kind you can find here, here and here. We, at Letter Wiki, would like to issue a different kind of challenge: not to defend your opinions, win a debate or own an adversary, but to show that you can communicate across the divide. Choose a partner with whom you have a substantial disagreement on a thorny but important issue and see if you can persuade her of your sincerity and good will, gently nudge her to question her ideas, allow her to challenge yours and, together, find some common ground.
Find out more about the Impossible Conversations competition.
Letter is a digital platform for one-on-one correspondence. It combines the intimacy of letter writing with the convenience of an online format and the added value that conversations can be publicly read and shared. Our subeditor, Iona Italia, works with Dayne and Clyde Rathbone to make this possible. To find out more, go to www.letter.wiki or contact email@example.com.
[…] Some—like James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian in Impossible Conversations, which I review here; and the practitioners of street epistemology—attempt to improve our rhetorical skills, to help […]
I am a big fan of both Boghossian and Lindsay and, unfortunately, still need to read this book. From my own experience of working in comparably “charged” atmospheres as are apparently discussed in this book, however, I must say that I am cautious when reading some of the examples you give. For instance, in the paragraph “Identity or Belief”, when you summarize the authors method of “taking the conversation to a higher level” or of “helping them see the mistakes in their reasoning”: in my own experience, this doesn’t work. It does not work for the simple reason that the conversation, if it has reached this point, is no longer about clarification of semantic content, but of pure assertion of power. Let’s take the example of the talk about “you are black, I am black, but we are both humans”: I my experience, this line of reasoning doesn’t work because,… Read more »
[…] Review of Impossible Conversations book […]
The intelligent, kind, handsome creator of Areo gave you and Plumrose the reigns to carry on yet both you and Plumrose seemingly keep giving it away to Boghossian and Lindsay by often promoting their opinions they’ve authored in articles, books. Their thoughts and ideals are okay but really don’t offer any new insights.
I encourage anyone to find more innovative answers by seeking new scientific and medical research about the brain from reputable sources. Even listening to podcasts under a specific category like Neuropsychology offers better understanding of why we are the way we are, how to deal with it and with others, is more informational than Boghosdian’s and Lindsay’s opinions which seem taken from current, popular social network observations, various isms—but mostly from what they’ve learned while amongst narrow and changing college environments.
Their main point should be well understood by anyone involved in teaching at any level.
E.g. when teaching maths I always try to help the student to work out for themselves where and how they went wrong, rather than just telling them.
quoting hope not hate is illegitimate tho a good article and i look fwd to reading all that stuff (book/letter) in the future.