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Is there any point in talking to “them”?

In response to my last post, Mike Travers wrote:

I wish I retained more of the liberal faith in the power of conversation, but after many years of trying to engage with a variety of right-wing types on the net, I really don’t. Face to face conversation sometimes has the power to change minds, but it’s a decreasing proportion of human interaction, which may be one of the roots of our current troubles.

I believe Mike has zeroed in on the most important issue in this conversation: is talking to “them” even worth it?  If you believe it is not, then I can see why you might sink to calling the other side names or punching them. If you believe that conversation might help, then of course you wouldn’t.

It’s fascinating to me how many people on both sides say they have no interest in talking to the other side. I had a conversation a week ago with a team of brilliant people who told me that there was absolutely no point in having any conversation with people who are unsure about LGBT rights, vaccination, or climate change. I admit that I have strong views on all those issues and have trouble imaging a sincere conversation with someone who disagrees with me. But I’m willing to try.

The other side feels the same way. The term “social justice warrior” (“SJW”) has emerged to describe folks they hate. Urban Dictionary defines SJW as “a pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way.” Members of the alt-right and others who use that term believe there’s no point in even trying to talk with an SJW–SJWs have made up their mind, and are not listening to others. It’s shocking to me how many people on both sides are not willing to consider the idea that the other side might have something worthwhile to say.

I still have, as Mike says, liberal faith in the power of conversation. I agree with Mike that conversation works better in person. But could we have conversations online that bridge the political divide? What if more people said, “I don’t think we agree on much, but let’s talk–and I’ll try to keep an open mind.” Even people with the most diametrically opposite views I believe can find some common values.

Could we create an internet site to facilitate those conversations, across the political divide? My students and I talk about this all the time. If we can come up with a good idea, we are going to try it. Would it be a structured discussion forum with rules of engagement and scaffolding for finding common values and agreed-upon facts? Could it be a kind of ‘game with a purpose,’ where finding common values scores points? Would anyone bother to try such a system? What would make it worth their while?

If you’re interested in these ideas, I recommend the US & Them Podcast. If you have ideas about software design for understanding across the political divide, leave me a comment–maybe we’ll really try it!

  1. August 5, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    Say, Amy. I would love to talk with you about this some time. I am involved with a small group of people here in the San Diego area trying to figure how we might provide some sort of platform that would tend to help a more civil discourse in the political arena. I have been mainly blogging in this direction for awhile (though the very most recent post is an unrelated mini-mystery story). I believe there are several inter-related major issues. 1) the media — even respected media — are rewarded in the marketplace by exaggerating differences among people. 2) politicians are *also* rewarded more for exaggerating the differences. 3) we live in a society where people have extremely diverse backgrounds and professions meaning agreeing would be harder than ever BUT at the same time, 4) we are more impatient than ever! People want to “hurry up” and “get to the issues” — this is deadly on-line but even face to face, it is not the way to go. For a long time before trying to “get to the issues” that divide people we need to spend time finding common ground. I believe finding common ground is *always* possible if people take enough time. (That may not be literally true but it is pretty close and the best assumption). Anyway, start with dancing, or a meal, or sharing tips on pets or gardening. That is why my blog is not composed purely of argumentation but includes stories of my childhood and re-interpreations from my current perspective. https://petersironwood.wordpress.com

    • August 6, 2017 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks so much, Peter! Will check out your blog, and yes let’s talk!

  2. August 6, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    I’m all for such efforts, and personally would love some kind of system that supported structured arguments.

    I asked around for existing systems or communities that supported dialog across ideological divisions, here’s the results. Many of these are just standard online sites with specific goals or rules to encourage debate; others are exploring special-purpose software.


    • August 7, 2017 at 10:06 am

      Great list–thanks Mike!
      My students and I are finishing a paper on r/changemyview (which turns out to be much less interesting than we had hoped), but I didn’t know about some of the others. Will check em out. 🙂

  3. william
    August 14, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    I would stick with the very narrow definition of SJWs. They are a really particular type of troll or someone engaging in this particular type of trolling. That the Left has embraced and given a platform to this kind of bullying continues to blow my mind.

    Do not use the self-serving, conservative definition. Too many just want to engage in broad-brush, liberal bashing. This is why so many people are called SJWs for just saying anything moderately liberal or progressive. And definitely do not use the alt-right definition. Nothing sincere comes out of their mouths besides hatred. Nothing useful either.

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