Indirect Message

Episode 10: Disagreeing Better

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What's up, everyone? Welcome back. We are coming full circle today on some of the discussions throughout the season of Indirect Message about social media, the internet, and the weirdest timeline. Like most people, I would never willingly opt into a Thanksgiving dinner debate about politics. It's a situation that I actively avoid. I prefer instead to hide behind a book with a glass of wine pretending not to hear heated discussions happening right in front of me. I'm on vacation for God's sakes! Just let me eat food and play with the puppies for a few days. This situation more or less captures how I've come to feel about social media. In some ways it feels like sitting at the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner table, except it never ends and there aren't even any mashed potatoes.


Americans collectively had a Thanksgiving dinner rage quit during the 2016 election in what some call "The Great Unfriending". Millions of people deleted friends on Facebook over political differences. While the official numbers were never released, it's estimated that about 10% of Facebook users hit the unfriend button. It's definitely tempting to blame individuals for the corrosion of our political discourse on social media. If only we could all behave better, communicate better, open our minds, maybe things would be easier and you know that's probably true, but I think chalking the problem entirely up to individual choices overlooks a pretty glaring problem. All the money, honey. The commercialization of social media has morphed into something unrecognizable up until this point. Most of the discussions I've had on Indirect Message have mused on some of these problems, but in case you forgot, here's a recap.

 

Firstly, by switching the ad model from subscription-based like newspapers to views based, the media is now incentivized not to deliver quality information, but to capture and hold our attention. This means it doesn't matter how accurate their reporting is, how toxic or divisive the language they use is, or who might be harmed in the process. This ad model is central to the so-called attention economy and it's directly responsible for a host of problems, outrage culture, the amplifying of extreme political opinions, clickbait headlines, inaccurate science reporting. And more. Number two, our personal data is also being sold to the highest bidder whether we want to or not, we find ourselves in digital echo chambers, which distort our view of reality, stoke partisanship and heart in our beliefs. Number three, social media algorithms reward attention seeking behaviors, boosting the loudest and most of noxious voices online. This also gives positive reinforcement through money, attention and status to the most divisive, corrosive and otherwise antagonistic voices. Meanwhile, reason and nuance are buried by the noise and number four, throwing gasoline on the fire here. Topics that should be evaluated with data and reason are instead evaluated with likes and shares. The ideas that are perceived as more popular are assumed to be more correct. Behold, the social media dumpster fire, which I'm starting to think is a fire that none of us can really put out. The only thing we can do is try not to make it bigger. And I think one of the most powerful ways to do this is by learning, studying how to navigate posts by family or friends, or even perfect strangers out there the wheat disagree with.

Before we dive into today's interview. A little love for the sponsor of indirect message, sweet pea dating app in a world that uses addictive algorithms to keep people swiping for hours. Sweet peas, taking a new approach. Just help people connect over the things they care about with features. The aim to replicate dating offline sweet pea helps us build quality connections through meaningful conversations. So by the time you go on that first date, it feels more like your second or third date. Start your 2020 off with the new approach. You can give it a whirl by downloading sweet pea for free on the app store. Thanks for the support guys. My guest today is Peter Bogosian. He's a philosophy professor at Portland state university and coauthor of how to have impossible conversations regardless of how you might orient toward Peter's other work. It's an excellent book full of communication techniques to improve your conversation skills and critical thinking too. As always, the ideas discussed here are done in the spirit of inquiry, a good faith attempt to figure out solutions together and so discussion should not be confused with endorsement. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

PETER
Most people want to get back to productive politics and productive conversations, but we really do have elements on the fringe right, and the fringe left that make that very, very difficult to do. You know the Eastern tradition, you get wisdom by meditating on a mountain somewhere, but in the West we get it through discourse, through dialogue, through conversation, through having our ideas challenged. That's really how you become a more mature person. I think that that this is really a takeover of immaturity.

LACI
Why is that happening?

PETER
I really don't know. I don't think I'm the best person to ask. Certainly some of it has to do with the platform, the structure, the architecture of the platform, the number of characters. There could be evolutionary reasons forward as well, but I do know a solution to it is to try to help people, to empower them with basic skills and techniques so that they won't be held hostage to the rationality of others. You should really never be held hostage to the rationality of others. Once you, you do that at any level, you've given up a little piece of yourself.

LACI
It feels like. Um, to me, having hard conversations has slowly gotten harder and harder. Um, and I think a lot of people feel frustrated and exhausted by some of the political conversations that they're confronted with in part because of the, the 24 hour news cycle. Do you think that things are harder than they used to be, that these conversations have actually gotten harder or is it more about our exposure to it from social media? I'm just curious about, you know, your own observations. 

PETER
With unshakable certainty. It is more difficult now than at any time in my life. When I grew up, my parents had friends all over the political religious spectrum. When I was in college, I had even, I had Republican friends and there were definitely Republicans on campus and we hung out and we joked and we argued and we talked. And I think the tragedy Lacy, is that we have lost something fundamental. And that's not just our ability to have friendships with different people, but our ability to keep our own beliefs in check. Can you elaborate on that? Well, yeah, you, you the Fineman, the physicist said, the easiest person to fool is yourself and one of the ways that you don't fool yourself, you keep your delusions and check your perceptions about reality, et cetera, is to have friends with people who don't believe the things that you believe and you talk to them about it and you try to figure out not what they believe so much, but the method they use.

If we try to figure out why does someone believe that and we figured out that the way they come to know it is legit, then we should know it too. Right? That's one of the things that having friends who have different opinions gives you, the other thing is you just have more friends. People don't view you as a Dick, right? They don't view you as somebody who, who just virtue signals to fit into communities. And I think a lot of that is what's fueling this is that people will hold beliefs for other reasons. Then they think the beliefs are true. They'll the beliefs cause they want to be members of a community. They'll hold the beliefs because they want to belong. And most importantly because they don't want to be lonely.

LACI
I can relate to that. I think, you know, in the course of my past body of work there was increasing pressure to use certain language to espouse certain views. You want to signal to people that you're not their enemy, that you're a kind person. Things like that. And I think it's easy for people to kind of get lost in the demands of others. Um, this virtue signaling, um, which I think is a useful term. I know a lot of people despise it and maybe some people listening to this, you know, cringe at the term, but I think there is, uh, there is something there where people are saying or doing things to signal their tribe. Um, and I think that really complicates it, especially for young people who have a really strong need to be validated and to fit in.

PETER
Yeah. Something I've been thinking about is I think a lot of the reasons for these beliefs that I hear in these very hard stances about things. You know, I mentioned the loneliness and belonging community, and I wonder if one of the reasons that people attacks so savagely on social media is because they don't think that they're at core the core of who they are. They don't think that there's a reason, a good reason for the belief they hold. In other words, they don't think that the belief can be rationally drive.

LACI
You describe this in your book as an "identity quake".

PETER
Once you start talking about things that have to do with identity, then engaging those beliefs or asking for evidence or what have you really threatened the core of who somebody is and it puts those conversations into hard mode instantly.

LACI
Um, something I'm curious about, uh, with you is that, you know, you've built your work around challenging ideas. Um, and really, you know, you're talking about instilling doubt, which kind of points to changing people's minds. Would you agree with that?

PETER
Uh, not, not, not entirely. I think a better framing of it is to help people become more humble about what it is that they claim to know and to calibrate their confidence. It's, you can think about it like a volume dial to kind of tune your confidence and the belief you have.

LACI
Why do you think that that is important in, in maybe like a micro and macro level.

PETER
and I'm going to violate my rule. I don't have to know actually my rule a, of asking a question with a question. Do you think it's important for people to believe true things?

LACI
Well, I wonder about that sometimes. I think some things are important too for people to believe true things because they have impacts in the world. Right? But sometimes I'm, and this feels like something that's coming with my age. Sometimes I'm just like, I don't really care.

PETER
Okay. Then let me ask you another question. Do you think people want to believe things that are true or do they want to believe things because it makes them comfortable? Well, I think we both know the answer to that question. So yeah, I think if you have beliefs that don't align with reality, then you construct a life for yourself in which you think you're bringing yourself to flourishing and wellbeing, but you're actually not. You're hurting yourself. You're hurting people you love, you're hurting your community. And so if we could just kind of tidy up our belief life, you know, it's like we have dental hygiene where we, you know, floss our teeth and brush our teeth, et cetera. But we also have belief hygiene too. Well, when it's really important for our own lives, if we attempt to really make a sincere attempt to try to believe things that are true and not believe things that are false,

LACI
Is there a place where it live and let live kicks in for you personally, where you find yourself feeling a more, a little more apathetic about what someone might believe?

PETER
My problem is that when people, they pretend to know things they don't know about, for example, creationism, and then they try to institutionalize that in the school systems or they turn to other things they don't know about what God tells them other people should do with their genitals. And then they try to Institute that in public policy.

LACI
One of my favorite parts of your book is chapter four where you start to get into some of the finer points about navigating disagreements with friends. There's a lot of people out there is a popular idea, especially in social justice land, um, that we should disavow friends, whether on Facebook or in real life who disagree with us. And I've had a lot of painful experiences as the direct outcome of this belief. Of course, as you mentioned before, I think a lot of this stuff was inflamed by the 2016 election. There's this idea that we, we can't find common ground, let alone, you know, real comradery and real healthy relationships with people who don't share our politics. You know, it's not about differences of opinion. People say to me it's about differences in our morality. Um, and, and so associating with someone is endorsing their moral systems. Do you think that there's any merit to this line of thinking?

PETER
May I ask you, may I ask you another question? It's okay to say no, of course. And this is directly related to the question you just asked me. Do you think it's more important to be just, or to be kind? Oh God. I don't know. Probably just, but also kind. Okay. Well, I'm not sure I said that, but, okay. So I think maybe the people who advocate that view of disavowing friendships and canceling friendships, perhaps they, they're looking at it because they think that's the just thing to do. But I don't think that's a kind thing to do. And I, if you do that, you robbed somebody else, have an opportunity to hear a view different from their own. We know the literature is very, very clear about how to persuade people. You create psychologically safe environments and then you befriend them. You want to persuade somebody. That's the way the opposite of that is screaming at people. The opposite of that is making people feel shame or bad.

LACI
Don't you think that's a crooked intention though? In a sense? It's like, it's like a religious person that's like, Oh, I'll, you know, be friends with you and we'll pretend we're all buddy buddy. But really my ultimate motive is to convert you to my way of thinking.

PETER
People are far more than one variable. You know, I don't understand why you would have to pretend to like somebody if they had a view that you found odious. Now I realize that some views are deal breakers. You know, it's like it, there's a difference between somebody who thinks that they're going to, you know, fuck the city. I'm gonna incur as many parking tickets as I can and somebody who belongs to the national man boy love association or something like that. But I think about it like this. There's a little exercise we can do. I think you may be an extraordinary example of this, but if you think back five years, did the beliefs that you have five years ago, are they similar to the beliefs you have today? Are they different? How, how close are they in alignment?

LACI
Um, I'd say they, they're a little bit different, but not, not dramatically different.

PETER
Okay. So go back five years from then. So when you're 20 are those, are they different? Dramatically different? Somewhat little bit.

LACI
A little bit more. But still, I would say it's no dramatic, you know, departures.

PETER
Okay. So, so if, if I were to say to you, how confident are you that the beliefs you have are true? You know, the whole belief, political, moral, sexual, social, etc. How confident are you? Those beliefs are true.

LACI
Six or seven.

PETER
Okay. That's a really good number. That's a great number. So that to me, that shows you're just a really reflective, sincere person. Right? I'm always skeptical when someone says 10 if you're really sincere and humble about what it is that you claim to know, then isn't that even more reason to have friends who have different opinions because they could be right about something that there's a really good chance that you're wrong about. I mean, even if it's a, a 40% or a 30% chance that you're wrong,

LACI
I think that there are some people would say, well, look what if this person has beliefs that justify violence against me?

PETER
Yeah. Well, I actually agree with that one. That would be a good reason to, not everyone has their deal breakers. That's one of my deal breakers. People who advocate violence as a deal breaker for me. Um, I don't believe that that's the way that we should conduct ourselves and civil society. We cannot go around punching. People are shooting people whose beliefs we don't agree with that this is not Iraq or Syria.


LACI
Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm more referring to people who think that, you know, friend a disavows friend B because friend B holds we use that are different. That friend a thinks are violent. Um, but maybe aren't literally violent. [inaudible] this is one that comes up a lot in the feminist sphere. Like you don't think my gender is real or whatever. And that is literal violence. Do you know what I mean?

PETER
Yeah, no, I know exactly what you mean. Greg [inaudible] and Jonathan height had wrote about that in a piece in the Atlantic and they've written about that a lot about why words are not violence. And just incidentally, that's one of the reasons that people call for prohibitions on speech is because they make the claim that just as you need to do everything you can to stop physical violence, so to do, you need to stop everything that you do, everything you can to stop verbal violence. So I think that the key in that context is to be just talk to someone about it, deal with it, sit down, have a cup of tea or a beer and say, look, you hold this belief. This makes me extremely uncomfortable. Talk to them about it, right? You should afford them an opportunity and you should really listen and say, okay, why does someone believe this? I want to have that conversation. And again, if you want to be more persuasive or if you want your movement to take on, if you want more people to join, whatever it is that you will, the movement that you happen to believe, that's the way to do it. I mean, just again, we already know how to do it because look at the, look at the successful religious movements. Look at Christianity. That's what they do.

LACI
Yeah, I mean I think that comes back to what you were saying about kindness versus justice. Like in order to really adopt that method, you'd have to believe there's some merit to kindness, right? I think most people agree with that, but there are probably some sectors of people who think that kindness is a distraction because the real value at the end of the day is, is the justice as they perceive it.

PETER
Okay, that's great. So then I would say to those people, I would say be honest. That's the, then everybody knows. Nobody has to guess at what anybody else thinks or believes. I mean, don't fake it. I mean if you really cared about someone, even if you don't care about someone care about yourself, just be honest with your speech.

LACI
In a similar vein. It's become almost virtuous to censor or otherwise silence, descent. Um, no platforming has become a really common tactic, mostly on the left while censorship say of science or sexuality information in my case has been used mostly on the right. How do you suggest we advocate for a plurality of voices and ideas in our current political climate?

PETER
That is an extraordinarily good question. Among the important things are we have to take a look at where people are learning this lesson that we can call certain voices. You know, Judas Butler and others call it nonconsensual cold platforming. They don't even want their articles to be put alongside other articles of people who disagree with them. Maybe this is just my reality tunnel or my pet peeve, but the first order of business is that we have to show kids in high schools and colleges that many of the people from whom they'll learn have different beliefs about economics, about race, about gender, about and not even those things, whatever, whatever it is, you know, pollution, carbon, that doesn't even matter what it is. So it has to start in the university where people hear divergent voices.

LACI
And what about social media? Are there things that we can do to really, uh, support plurality of voices without necessarily endorsing any particular view?

PETER
Yeah. This might not be the answer you want, but it's a sincere answer. And that leave your, don't look at your phone constantly. Don't be behind your computer. Constantly get out, find a hobby. Find people who have different beliefs than you do. And then, you know, let friends be wrong. It's okay if somebody doesn't have, doesn't conform to every single belief you have. You know, maybe they know something you don't know, that's fine. And you know, maybe they really are decent people and they're decent people. Just happen to have a different view about something.

LACI
Um, something that does stand out to me online is that a lot of these conversations on Twitter or Facebook are underscored by anger. What, I mean, you talk a little bit about anger in your book and in how to manage it. Do you think there's any value or function in anger and you know, if not, what, what should we do with our anger that might come up with these emotionally loaded topics?

PETER
It's interesting. It's a really interesting question. Is there a value in anger? You know, I've been, I'm terrible at it. I've been doing martial arts for a long time. I really am horrible at it. But one, one thing you will see consistently among the best people who do martial arts are they do not fight when they're angry. I'm not sure that anger in that sense achieves what people think. W when you're angry at somebody, it certainly doesn't help them revise their beliefs. They just think you're an ass. It doesn't help them reflect on their own beliefs. So I don't really see any, any purpose to it.

LACI
Yeah. I mean, the purpose may be limited, but it's still very human, right to be angry, especially in the face of injustice. Um, I think that that ignites really strong viewings. Do you have any strategies that you use to check your own anger? Sometimes in order to have a productive conversation with someone?

PETER
I think what I do is I focus on how someone knows it and we haven't talked about it at all. But I'll, I'll ask right away, I'll ask a defeasible [inaudible] question. I'll validate what someone says and then I'll say, that's really interesting. How could that belief be false? It's hard to do, particularly with your intimates. I don't mean, you know, romantically intimate, but anybody who's, you know, you're very, very close to in your life because you know them very well. And so, um, it's, it's more, it's more important in those circumstances. Like for example, you don't want to just jump in or jump on someone and just start screaming them about whatever the issue is. But you want to take a minute to build rapport or a few mint, right? You, you, you know, you know, the first thing you say to someone when they walk in the door isn't like you don't attack them for some belief they hold. You've got to figure the time in place of for what it is as well.

LACI
So it's a psychologically safe environment for those types of conversations. I often find myself trying to balance the need for social cohesion with the need for intellectual honesty. So on one hand, you know, I want the people around me to feel good, to feel affirmed, to feel seen, um, not to feel judged or criticized, right? And then on the other hand, I also want the people around me to live their lives rationally and to pursue truth. But this has created a lot of tension. You know, for instance, I have family members who believe, you know, maybe it's morally corrupt to tell teenagers it's okay to masturbate if they don't feel ready to have sex, things like that. How do you balance,

PETER
They believe that's morally corrupt?

LACI
Yeah. My family's Mormon. So I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts about how to balance, you know, people's need for social cohesion and, and to create a socially positive environment with, with the need to put push back on some things that might create tension.

PETER
I have to say I'm really enjoying this conversation. I think you're really a sincere person. Um, I think that the way to do that is to be forthright in your speech is to speak clearly and bluntly and directly. You know, do you believe in the facts of evolution? How old is the earth or whatever? Just don't worry about what people will think about you. Just be honest. If you say who you really are, or if somebody demeans you and they asked you a question and you say, I don't know, and they try to make you feel stupid, you don't need those people in your life. There are plenty of people out there you can be friends with. You know, this is not a poker post-apocalyptic society with 20 people running around in a nuclear bunker. It took me a long time to just excise or cut out of my life. Nasty people who I don't need in my life anymore and I never ghost anybody. I'm always very specific. You've done this, this is a deal breaker for me. Let's talk about it. And you know what? I just don't think I can continue this friendship and people will respect you more, not less. If you do that.

LACI
That does seem to be at odds with what we were talking about earlier, right? Where you should have friends who maybe see things different than you. So what's the line?

PETER
Well, what, what, what's a deal breaker for you? You know, different people have different deal-breakers. I think the threshold in today's society for what's a deal breaker is so ludicrously low that somebody has to prove exactly what I believe on this, this, this, no, that's not the case. So every sane person have something that's a deal breaker for them.

LACI
What you're describing seems to suggest that maybe some level of ending relationships is inevitable. Kindness cannot get us through all of this. At some point, people draw a line and you may disagree with where people draw the line. Um, but you know, that line is there to draw and we should just say, except that that's, that's the way it is.

PETER

You also have to ask yourself, how many friends have I disowned or canceled? That could be something telling you that you need to sincerely engage in an honest way.

LACI
Yeah, it builds intellectual and emotional fortitude, which is really important. Um, unfortunately a lot of people don't read. So if you had to disseminate one message from your impossible conversations book, what would it be?

PETER
Oh boy, that's a brutal question. Um, it would be let friends be wrong.

LACI
I was wondering if you would say something along those lines.

Well, you guys, that's a wrap. Thank you so much for lending an ear to all of these thoughts and ideas. I'll be back in February with new episodes along different thematic lines. I'm super excited to keep this conversation moving. Thank you so much for being along, for the journey. I'll see you soon.

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© 2020 by Laci Green