The illusion of unity isn’t worth having.—Christopher Hitchens
Note: We’re currently holding an Impossible Conversations competition at Letter. This article will explain why and give examples of conversations that epitomise the values we’re looking for. For instructions on taking part, see the end of the article.
Why Is It So Hard to Talk Through Our Disagreements?
We are facing some thorny problems—worldwide environmental degradation, a resurgence of authoritarianism in the world’s two largest nations, toxic tribalism and division in the world’s most powerful and the unknown effects of our increasing reliance on AI. It has never been more important to find common ground across cultural and ideological divides and obtain input from a wide range of voices. At the same time, a fear of the contagion of dangerous and harmful ideas has led to increasing calls for censorship from every source from the Chinese government to Social Justice activists on US campuses.
Many have offered suggestions as to how to mitigate the increasing polarization of public discourse. 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 us directly persuade our interlocutors.
Some—like Zachary R. Wood in this TED talk—advise us to gather information about our adversaries, in order to strengthen our case against them. Matt McManus, a leftist academic who studies conservative ideology, is a particularly sophisticated practitioner of the latter art. McManus writes:
To a considerable extent, politics isn’t based on arguments and policies, but dispositions and personalities. Many people are instinctively conservative and unlikely to dramatically shift from that position. But it is possible to convince more moderate conservatives on a point-by-point basis. This is where familiarity with the best iterations of right-wing ideas can be very helpful.
These approaches can help to diffuse hostility and therefore have merit. However—as Oliver Traldi points out here—they skip a step. They assume that we already know that we have the right answers. As a result, they can seem condescending. It’s easy to overestimate your persuasive skills if your feedback comes mainly from those who already agree. A overemphasis on convincing can block us from learning from others.
McManus’ emphasis on the correlations between political conviction and personality recalls moral foundations theory, as outlined in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s work reminds us not to demonize those on the other side of the political aisle. They are not less ethical than we are, Haidt argues, but simply have a different hierarchy of values. Barack Obama recently shared an article on this as part of his Thanksgiving message on Twitter. These approaches centre on finding common ground. Again, this is helpful, but, by making differences merely psychological, we risk trivialising the issues at stake.
We can see the implications of this in debates on the value of civility, which are always especially heated around major US holidays like Christmas. There are frequent calls to put aside our political differences at such times, in order to safeguard our relationships with friends and family. Some people feel that the issues at stake are too pressing to neglect the opportunity family gatherings provide to try to bring relatives over to their way of looking at things. And, for others, their political convictions are such an integral part of their identity that to conceal or downplay them for the sake of harmony feels fake. Consensus is often achieved by avoiding any subject anyone feels passionate about and sticking to topics that are trivial. This doesn’t promote real intimacy.
Hair-trigger outrage and demonization of our political opponents clearly create a toxic atmosphere in which many are afraid to speak their minds for fear of alienating friends, being fired or cancelled. But we should not fetishize civility either. Civility is a way of conducting conversations. It should not be mistaken for an aim in itself. Outrage for its own sake is unproductive and exhausting and the psychological benefits of letting off steam are unproven—habitually indulging their anger is probably likely to make people angrier. But focusing on our opponents’ style of communication can provide a facile excuse to ignore the points they are making. We can also easily end up endlessly talking about talking.
In his recent book, Why Are We Yelling?, which stands out for its calm, intellectually curious and fearless approach, Buster Benson argues that we should not focus on persuasion—a kind of intellectual tug of war, in which the main aim is to try to get our opponent to give ground. He argues that we too often allow a veneer of civility to mask more profound disagreements. By contrast with almost every other commentator on this issue, he confesses, “I’ve become much more concerned when I see people being too polite and conflict avoidant than when conflict is surfacing and being heard.” Both Ben Shapiro-style performative pugnacity and discreetly glossing over differences are ways of avoiding true, profound engagement. To answer Buster’s question: we yell not to make ourselves heard, but to drown out the voices of others.
As almost everyone who has ever lamented the gladiatorial outrage erotics of Twitter knows, the forums in which we hold conversations can profoundly affect the kinds of exchanges we have. In a fight, we double down; in a debate, we posture and perform; when we’re afraid of damaging friendships, we pussyfoot around and mollify. The letter format tends to nudge us towards a more productive way of discussing difficult subjects. It encourages good faith and that, in turn, gives people the confidence to broach inflammatory subjects with an openness and frankness that would feel too threatening if they feared their words would be twisted and their good intentions exploited.
I’ve theorized as to why letters have this psychological effect here. But the concrete evidence can be found in the kinds of exchanges people are already having on our site. Here are four examples.
Brian Earp and Josh Yuter: Circumcision
Excited to share next installment in exchange of letters (via @LetterWiki) between me & Rabbi @JYuter on circumcision & morality. He asks, why do I think "medical necessity" is only valid moral justification for non-consensual genital cutting? Answer here: https://t.co/QhPa3weofV
— Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp) September 11, 2019
Rabbi Josh Yuter and medical ethicist Brian Earp’s correspondence centres on a conflict between secular and religious ethics. This topic sets tempers aflame like few others. Brian and Josh’s conversation, however, is calm and civil. They avoid some of the most common pitfalls: on the part of advocates, a Gish gallop of possible clinical benefits, often based on a poor understanding of statistics; on the part of opponents, unfair attributions of nefarious motives—such as child abuse or sadism—to people who advocate circumcision out of religion or medical conviction. Instead, Brian and Josh go straight to the heart of their disagreement.
For Brian, this is a question of bodily autonomy: “Almost everybody, regardless of their cultural or religious upbringing, believes it is a serious moral wrong to touch, cut, or otherwise interfere with a person’s genitals without their consent.” Josh, on the other hand, attempts to balance this against needs for group cohesion and points out that all societies restrict individual freedoms for the greater good: “discussions of ‘morality’ aren’t just what is and isn’t ‘moral’ but what are the exceptions. For one approach, medical necessity is the only justifiable exception for circumcision. Other approaches may have a different moral hierarchy of values.”
Gretchen Mullen and Michael Isaacson: Fascism and Antifa
A new letter from Mike Isaacson @vulgareconomics explains that Antifa will disappear when the threat is gone. Also, violence is a small part of what Antifa does. I hope you will read it and give it some thought. https://t.co/BME1yEHj1D
— Skeptic Review (@SkepticReview89) July 8, 2019
In this extraordinary exchange, writer Gretchen Mullen and Rose City Antifa member Michael Isaacson discuss the contemporary far right in the US. Mike is extremely frank about his views, including some that most readers (including me) will find deeply offensive—he condones the killing of policemen, for example. However, over the course of the conversation, we learn a lot about how to recognise and combat fascism, how to distinguish the real deal from mere conservatism or support for Trump and about how Antifa operates. This allows us to untangle truth from scaremongering. The attack on Andy Ngo that occurred halfway through the correspondence shifts the focus to political violence.
While, as Gretchen argues, “some of what I call the radicalized left … have elevated the threat of neo-fascism to a moral panic,” fascism is a perennial danger, with some clearly recognisable characteristics. As Mike succinctly puts it, “Every variety of fascism is built on an oppressive egoism, applying capitalist ethics of individual competition to all aspects of life.”
When I began reading, I felt complete condemnation of Antifa and of everything Mike stands for. By the end, my perspective had shifted considerably. Judge for yourselves: the full correspondence is here. I’ve written an accompanying article on the appeal and dangers of fascism, taking these letters as a jumping-off point: here.
Andrew Glover and Jason Crawford: Progress and Sustainability
“With so many achievements in science and technology, how many more examples do you need to increase your confidence in human ingenuity?”
— The Roots of Progress (@rootsofprogress) December 4, 2019
Andrew and Jason are discussing possibly the most important topic of all: how to secure a future of health and prosperity for mankind. Drawing heavily on David Deutsch’s ideas, Jason is an optimist. He argues that environmental challenges can and will be solved by Homo sapiens’ ingenuity. His vision is radically human-centric. As he writes elsewhere: “The environment itself has no intrinsic value; it is valuable to us because it is our home and our resource. We survive and thrive by using it, shaping it, transforming it. Therefore, environmental ‘impact’ is not necessarily a bad thing.” For Jason, the highest level of comfort and prosperity for everyone is an achievable long-term stretch goal. Rather than sustainability, we should pursue growth:
Progress is not automatic or inevitable. But human ingenuity has been so successful in such a wide variety of areas that I think, on the grounds of history and philosophy, we are justified in drawing a general principle: all problems are solvable, given enough time, effort, and thinking.
Andrew offers a sobering and cautious corrective to this ebullience. He emphasizes the difficulties posed by climate change, dwindling resources and environmental degradation. He also questions the value of growth per se. Should we pursue seemingly limitless increases in prosperity? Once our basic needs have been satisfied, will greater wealth or comfort actually add to the sum total of human happiness? Is such a search in conflict with the prerogative of preserving the environment? Andrew argues that, “the increase in life satisfaction does appear to taper off once you reach a certain level of wealth. In other words, there are diminishing returns on life satisfaction after people have most of their material needs satisfied.”
This discussion is on-going. You can read the full correspondence here.
Patricia Marcoccia and Gwendolyn Huot: The Jordan Peterson Documentary
"I don’t know what factored into your decision not to screen the film but I wanted to share the context I’m coming from."
— Peter N Limberg (@peternlimberg) November 25, 2019
This remarkably candid and civil on-going exchange between documentary filmmaker Patricia Marcoccia and cinema owner Gwendolyn Huot offers a rare insight into the reasons behind a refusal to screen a controversial film. As Patricia explains, although she regards the film as a nuanced, balanced take on Peterson, not a panegyric, to screen the movie is now viewed as a declaration of support for the controversial Canadian academic. As all too often happens in our world of internet memes and souped-up controversies, people are preoccupied by the film’s supposed symbolic value, rather than its content: “It’s such a strange meta-moment. The scenario forces one to engage with the topic of the film and because of the polarized nature of the topic, choosing to screen the film or not forces one to artificially pick a tribe in some sense.”
Gwendolyn reveals the factors a small cinema owner must take into consideration when choosing what to screen. “Responding to moral offense,” she tells Patricia, “is something I feel unprepared & unpracticed for.” We learn more about the factors that influence what independent cinemas can show:
The Overton Window for cinema generally gets defined for us further upstream, by the programming choices of festivals … & larger cinemas in Toronto & Ottawa, and by the acquisitions made by the 15 distribution companies that supply 98% of our films.
This conversation has obvious implications for cancel culture, and the dilemmas facing those with platforms that are dependent on audience funding. Read the full correspondence here.
Enter the Competition
To enter the competition, simply find a correspondent, sign up to Letter (click on the little man icon or the orange Compose button), decide on a topic, choose who should begin the exchange and start writing. If you’d like to participate, but don’t have a digital pen pal, email email@example.com, tag our epistolary matchmaker, @JacksonAEdwards, on Twitter or launch an initial missive, using our Letter in a Bottle feature and we will spread the word to possible interlocutors.
Our judges will award a $2,500 prize to the correspondents who have the most productive conversation about an important issue on which they strongly disagree. The conversation will run until the end of January 2020. You can find more details here and read more about our general aims at Letter here. Please feel free to email us or tag or DM on Twitter, if you have any questions.
To give you an extra boost, I’ve written a piece about letter writing here. It is less a how-to manual and more a series of thoughts and suggestions designed to spark inspiration.
My own conversations on Letter have been some of the most emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating experiences I have had this year. I’ve especially treasured my interactions with Buster Benson, Thomas Chatterton Williams and Steph Godderidge. It’s an excellent option for those who want to explore arguments more profoundly: a scuba dive to Twitter’s messy splash in the shallows.
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. We also provide a matchmaking service for those who lack a suitable correspondent. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.