Letter is a public platform for one-on-one letter exchanges. We have recently completed an Impossible Conversations competition, in which the judges—Heather Heying, Russ Roberts, John Wood jr. and our own Helen Pluckrose—chose the best conversation between participants with a major difference of opinion on an important topic. Scroll down for links to those conversations. But, first, here’s why we think this is especially important right now.
What Has Made Conversations Impossible
As the recent outcry at the publication of a mildly worded open letter in support of free speech has demonstrated, many people are currently afraid of the possibility of their political opponents voicing unpalatable opinions in the public sphere. Combined with the natural caution of businesses, who do not want to alienate their most vocal—often their most easily offended—customers, this has created an atmosphere of trepidation about speaking openly.
It’s very easy to quell free speech. A few people—with financial security or a dedicated fanbase—can afford to defy public opinion. But most of us do not have the finances of J. K. Rowling or the audience of Joe Rogan. Most of us depend on each other socially, financially and emotionally. We do not want to sour our personal friendships, we don’t want our relationships with our colleagues to be awkward, we don’t want to lose our jobs, we don’t want to risk a possible future employer taking umbrage at our controversial tweets or blog posts.
It is a common misconception that free speech is a matter for governments: that all that is needed is immunity from prosecution, and people will speak their minds. But the social environment is just as vital. For people to talk freely, they need to feel that they will be listened to in good faith, given the benefit of the doubt, allowed to try ideas on for size, to think aloud, explore and investigate without limits—to voice what is in their hearts and on their minds, even if it is confused, delusional, prejudiced, even hateful. And, above all, people need to be allowed to be wrong. Many opponents of free speech argue that Christopher Hitchens was wrong to describe sunlight as the best disinfectant: according to such advocates, it’s bleach. But, as Jan-Helge Lillevik has pointed out, bleach is a toxic substance that we use to eradicate germs. This is not how we should treat our fellow human beings. To err is human and—with apologies to Alexander Pope—to forgive needs to become human, too.
Those who are contributing to this stifling atmosphere are afraid of speech—and they are right to be. Freedom of expression has perhaps the most negative trade offs of any fundamental value. Every authoritarian from Stalin to Hitler to Kim Jong-Un has harnessed the power of speech and quickly monopolised it to shut down opposition. ISIS recruits through speech and writing; so do the RSS; so do white nationalist groups. Everyday speech can also cause enormous harm. The cruelty of words can drive people to suicide. Bullies and sociopaths know the efficacy of this weapon.
But, without freedom of expression, we would lose almost everything that is valuable in human intellectual progress. Without free speech, all you say and write must conform closely to the status quo. Progress is impossible because to progress you have to think new thoughts and be able to express those thoughts aloud, so that you can receive the feedback that will allow you to refine and correct them. Without some degree of free speech, there can be no science—younger scientists cannot challenge the authority of older ones—there can be no art—there may be traditional craftsmanship, but art requires originality of vision—there can be no meaningful literature—because great literature asks the troubling questions, explores the ambiguities, ambivalences and grey areas of human life. And there can be no social progress, because social progress involves questioning entrenched authority and defying those in whose interest it is to maintain the status quo.
Whenever free speech protections are weak, those in power can control what is permitted to be said and they will use that power to hinder social change. History provides a long record of such attempts: slaves kept illiterate so that no one would learn of the conditions of their captivity; maidservants paternalistically protected from novels that might give them ideas above their station; women’s reading supervised and censored by husbands and fathers; unionist pamphlets suppressed; the lower castes kept ignorant of Sanskrit scriptures, so their Brahmin overlords could retain their mystique. Restrict what the oppressed can say, listen to, read and write and it’s easier to keep them from questioning injustice.
Change, in itself, is neutral. Truly bad ideas can gain a temporary ascendance. Over the short term, social change may lead to a more regressive, reactionary and oppressive world. But, as Steven Pinker has shown, over the longer term, the arc bends towards good. The freer we are, the more ideas we can generate and stress test by exposing them to the public sphere: ideas can lead to wisdom and wisdom to flourishing. Were this not the case, we would still be living in feudal societies, ruled by warrior leaders supported by bands of thugs.
Free speech does not only need to be imposed top down: it must also flourish in our ordinary dealings with each other. And that begins with conversation. Unrestrained, exploratory and honest conversation, free from fear, has been one of the major casualties of the recent chilling of public speech. Twitter has a large role to play in that, as do clickbait articles, scandal-driven, short-form news programmes and all the media that encourage speedy responses, skim-reading, scrolling and the other practices that keep us in what Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows”—judging each other by five-minute video clips and 280-character utterances.
The other discouraging factor has been the frequent attribution of guilt by association, through which people can be held responsible for the speech or actions of others—over which they have no control and of which they may not even be aware. We don’t read past the title, don’t watch past the viral footage when delving deeper might exonerate our fellow human beings. But when we want to condemn them, we construct the most far fetched interpretations and tenuous connections. In neither case do we give the person a fair hearing or see her in her own context as an individual.
In a pluralistic democracy, we must try to understand other people’s viewpoints even when they are misguided or illiberal. We must live peaceably alongside those we think are wrong. And, more importantly, if we want to solve the increasingly intractable problems that face us, we will have to learn to work together and that means being able to converse with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements on things that matter passionately to us. We can’t afford to condemn people who may have something valuable to offer just because we dislike some of their opinions. We even have to face the uncomfortable fact that they may be in the right. Not everyone has the skills to negotiate such conversations. Not everyone is courageous or secure enough to brave societal disapproval by investigating controversial ideas and not everyone can reach across major ideological divides. We should applaud those who do, especially when they do so in a public forum, so that everyone can benefit.
The winners of our Impossible Conversations Competition show us exactly how it’s done.
As Heather Heying writes, the best entries are characterised by “a clear, key tension (or more than one),” despite which “both participants engaged with open minds, and a willingness to bring information to the table that might not be of the sort that the other was expecting or hoping for.” This doesn’t necessarily result in one person persuading the other—these are not zero-sum debates—but it does result in “moments of profound insights, in some cases many such moments,” glimpses that can change our view of the entire situation. The best conversationalists “noted and corrected errors they had made, or made explicit the low confidence they had in a particular example they had used. This is the mark of someone who is actually seeking truth and common understanding, rather than merely to score points or otherwise enhance their reputation.”
Andrea Lynn Lewis and Liam Kofi Bright: On Critical Race Theory
Find this full conversation here.
— Andrea with the Bangs (@AndreaLynnLewis) April 16, 2020
Andrea and Liam discuss the contentious topic of Critical Race Theory. The correspondence provides a clear, succinct definition of the theory and its implications. As Liam writes:
Critical Race Theorists think of racism in terms of social or institutional structures systematically favouring the dominant group—in our society white people—over non-dominant groups. Core claim is: racism, so understood, is persistent, influential, and maintains itself whether or not the individuals staffing bureaucratic roles have ill will towards black people or non-whites.
At its heart, Liam and Andrea’s disagreement concerns whether you can evaluate a theory independently of its real-world effects. Liam argues that,
Opponents … often critique CRT by critiquing behaviour of people who profess core CRT ideas. But … if you wish to know what an idea entails for you, you have to think it through yourself.
Andrea concedes most of Liam’s claims about the persistence of social ills whose causes are rooted in “small initial disparities,” which, as Liam puts it, “when combined with salient but arbitrary means of dividing persons (like, say, skin colour and hair texture!) tend to generate persistent inequality.” However, she points to the events at Evergreen College as an example of the ways in which Critical Race Theory can influence people in the real world. She observes that “those who I see espousing this theory and acting it out only focus on our differences and what divides us” and argues that “the activist aspects … make me think there is perhaps a new core, that those things which you say are secondary, are no longer considered secondary.”
Ideological battles between SJWs and anti-SJWs are generally mudslinging extravaganzas, laced with hyperbole and uncharitable accusations on both sides—when they take place at all. In this conversation, both parties are making a concerted effort to find common ground, in order to tackle real societal problems. The correspondence is notable for its mutual respect and kindness.
Helen Pluckrose comments:
Liam was focused on ideas and intellectual history and Andrea on people and social impact … but there was no hostility but a genuine back and forth with two people trying to understand and address what the other was actually saying but bring their own observations, knowledge and focus to bear on it. This is the kind of conversation that is useful to outsiders who genuinely want to decide what they think of critical race theory in theory and in practice and the juxtaposition of those very different focuses can result in a genuine adjustment of ideas to accommodate the valuable observations of both.
Winning Conversationalist: Gretchen Mullen
Read Gretchen’s conversations and write to Gretchen here.
Intellectually curious and open-minded, Gretchen is unafraid to tackle controversial issues and engage in conversation with people whose views differ markedly from her own with politeness and understanding—but without ever compromising her own values. These talents are especially evident in her extraordinary exchange with activist Michael Isaacson on Antifa and the far right. You can read the complete correspondence here.
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
Mike is extremely frank about his views, including some that some readers may find offensive. 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 this letter exchange, I felt complete condemnation of Antifa and of everything Mike stands for. By the end, my perspective had shifted considerably. Mike was much more informative and thoughtful than I was expecting. I found the correspondence so thought provoking that I wrote a full article about the appeal and dangers of fascism: here.
Runner Up Conversationalist: Michael Isaacson
You can read Mike’s conversation and write to him here.
It has become increasingly rare to find people having public conversations with those with whom they have major and fundamental disagreements. Mike knew that many of those reading his conversation would disagree strongly with his point of view, but, despite that, he was open, frank, clear and respectful throughout the course of a lengthy exchange. In the earlier letters especially he also provided a wealth of information about the nature of fascism and the tactics and philosophy of Antifa. We need to be exposed to more people who challenge our biases. Mike’s voice is important in this.
Runner Up Conversations
Buster Benson and BJ Campbell on Handguns
You can read the complete correspondence here.
We reached a good plateau in this @LetterWiki conversation about gun control. After 14,000 words, we identified a policy change we both agree could reduce gun violence by at least 5% nationwide. Baby steps, but in the right direction. https://t.co/XEsS54FnCL
— Buster Benson (@buster) October 15, 2019
Buster and BJ’s conversation tackles one of the most emotive political issues: guns. Buster favours greater gun control; BJ is a gun owner. The correspondents take an unusually calm and dispassionate approach, drawing on statistics and analysing potential and actual legislation in detail in an attempt to find common ground. They display an unusual level of mutual trust: they clearly believe that they share the same values and simply need to discover how best to promote those values.
Over the course of their letter exchange, Buster and BJ formulate possible solutions that might both reduce violence and suffering and be acceptable to both sides of the debate. They discuss male suicides, self-defence and the different cultural milieus of the UK and the US. Along the way, they unpick some of the specious slogans used by both gun control advocates and the NRA and expose the ways in which both sides misrepresent statistics in the service of their respective causes.
Jon Rosen and Ben Burgis on Free Will
You can read the full correspondence here.
"I believe that even if we live an entirely deterministic world… we have the kind of control over our actions that matters for moral responsibility…"@BenBurgis to Jon Rosen on @LetterWiki https://t.co/fvRyOp4Vah
— Dayne Rathbone (@DayneRathbone) May 28, 2019
Jon and Ben’s conversation on free will has inspired a lot of passionate responses. It has overflowed from the pages of Letter and been continued in a number of different venues. The three of us argued over our different interpretations of the concept in an almost three-hour podcast episode and Ben and I sparred further in two articles in this magazine.
Conversations on free will can easily become turgid or abstruse. This one is exceptionally clear and succinct. Jon focuses on the need for compassion towards others, who cannot be blamed for their actions, given the non-existence of free will, while Ben argues that we must recuperate the concept of free will in order to assess innocence and guilt fairly in legal cases.
Continuing the Conversation
Although the competition has closed, there is a pressing need for more deep, engaged, exploratory, good faith conversations on difficult subjects across ideological divides. Come and join us. Here’s how.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.