In the 1970s, Dr Frank Wesley, a professor of psychology at Portland State University, conducted research into the experiences of American servicemen taken prisoner during the Korean War. Wesley discovered that the PoWs who defected to North Korea had overwhelmingly come from one particular American training camp, so he set about trying to discover what made this camp unique.
Was the training not rigorous enough? Had soldiers not been taught the skills necessary to withstand interrogation? Had they inadvertently been trained to be too sympathetic to the North Korean regime? Quite the opposite, as it turned out. Wesley discovered that these men received training that was unusually critical of the enemy. They were taught North Koreans were sadistic barbarians, devoid of kindness or gentleness, who hated the United States and everything it stood for.
When the PoWs discovered that their captors demonstrated compassion as well as cruelty, their faith in their training unravelled. This injection of doubt was enough to undo their indoctrination entirely, so that some were driven to defect. Doubt, it seems, can be a powerful weapon.
Wesley would later go on to mentor the philosopher Peter Boghossian, co-author, along with mathematician James Lindsay, of How to Have Impossible Conversations, a step-by-step guide to taking part in discussions that, as the authors put it, “feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics, or worldview”. With superb clarity, Boghossian and Lindsay present readers with a series of techniques that can assist in “listening, understanding and then instilling doubt” in the mind of any conversation partner.
The book is billed as a simple tool, to be used by anyone, of any political persuasion. But this is not to say that the authors themselves don’t have an agenda. Boghossian and Lindsay are perhaps best known for their role in the 2018 “Grievance Studies affair” along with the editor and independent scholar Helen Pluckrose (full disclosure: I am a contributor to the online magazine Areo, edited by Pluckrose). The trio set out to make mischief by highlighting shoddy practices within what they dubbed “Grievance Studies”: the academic disciplines concerned with race, gender and other forms of identity. Between them they wrote 20 deliberately absurdist papers and submitted them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms. By the time the hoax was revealed, seven of their papers had been accepted, including a study on rape culture among dogs and a feminist rewriting of Mein Kampf. Boghossian was later investigated by his employer, Portland State University, for his role in the affair, in a move criticised by many of his allies as politically motivated.
All the while we should be building “golden bridges” which allow people to backtrack while saving face
As a result, Boghossian and Lindsay are considered to be part of what is sometimes referred to as the “intellectual dark web”, a loose collection of individuals, many of them authors or academics, who are critical of the approach to identity politics that is currently dominant within academia and much of the media. Although How to Have Impossible Conversations is ostensibly written as a neutral primer on how to engage with ideological opponents, there are both subtle and not-so-subtle references throughout to the issue of social justice activism and the free speech crisis besetting universities in America and elsewhere.
But then the authors would be the first to accept that they bring their own biases to any conversation, as we all do. The task, as they see it, is to resist the temptation to dismiss, misrepresent and denigrate our conversation partners if they don’t share these biases. Both Boghossian and Lindsay admit that they have succumbed to this temptation many times. Their introduction begins with an account of a conversation in which Boghossian tried and failed to have a productive conversation on affirmative action with a colleague. They mercilessly highlight his various errors: “[He] wasn’t listening; he was annoying; and he was being an asshole . . . He was so focused on winning — and even intellectually embarrassing her — that he ruined the conversation and closed the door to productive future exchanges.”
The intention of this book is not to advise anyone on “winning” arguments, at least not in a narrow sense. The authors display a laudable passion for truly open-minded questioning, and are impatient with anyone who considers themselves above conversing with their ideological opponents. We are sharply reminded that “[i]f the black musician Daryl Davis can have civil conversations with Klansmen and help them abandon the KKK (and he can: he has a closet full of their relinquished hoods to prove it) then you can talk to a racist, or to anyone holding any belief system, and discover why they believe what they believe.”
The book is, as promised, orientated around practical advice. The techniques start with what is essentially an introduction to basic social skills (“if someone tells you they just got back from Cuba, don’t start talking about the time you went to Cuba. Ask them about their experiences in Cuba”) before becoming more sophisticated. Topics include how to build rapport, how to listen attentively and how to recognise your adversary as a fellow human being who is, to all intents and purposes, benign.
Simple enough, you might think, and yet how few Twitter users seem capable of remembering that, for instance, “the intentions and motivations you assume in your conversation partner are likely worse than their actual intentions and motivations . . . People don’t knowingly desire bad things, so assume your partner has good intentions.” For many of us (myself included), these are necessary lessons.
Subsequent chapters are dense with advice. We learn that modelling the behaviour we would like to see in others can help to encourage positive interactions. For instance, admitting ignorance of a particular fact may make it easier for your conversation partner to admit to her own ignorance. Condemning extremists on your own “side” produces an easy source of agreement. Making small adjustments to language — “we” and “us” rather than an accusing “you” — may help to build trust.
We are advised to ask searching, open questions, but always politely, and all the while building “golden bridges” which allow people to backtrack while saving face. The intention is to gently lead a conversation partner to uncover the flaws in his own reasoning, rather than have them starkly pointed out. And remember not to press home your advantage, but instead step back and give the other person the opportunity to mull over their doubts in private. After all, changing one’s mind is rarely a quick process.
Above all, we should seek out an answer to the most difficult question of all: “Under what conditions could you be wrong?” Which is also a question we should all be asking regularly of ourselves. “I absolutely do not want to be wrong for one more instant than I have to be” we are instructed to tell our conversation partners. And it seems that Boghossian and Lindsay sincerely mean this. In an age in which rigid thinking is all too often mistaken for integrity, it is refreshing to discover people who delight in their own fallibility.
The book ends with a chapter on engaging with the most challenging interlocutors of all: the true ideologues in some intellectual communities — not least the woke Left — who doggedly refuse to revise their beliefs no matter how tenuous their evidence. For them, conversations must take place on a moral, rather than factual, plane because subscribing to certain beliefs is a test of virtue. Hence we should “acknowledge their intention and affirm their identity as a good, moral person — especially if you find their beliefs repugnant”.
For people whose social identities are dependent on ideological loyalties — which is all of us, by the way, albeit to varying degrees — a challenge to fundamental beliefs is experienced by the brain as akin to the threat of physical danger. Changing one’s mind truly hurts, so much so that Boghossian and Lindsay refer to the experience as an “identity quake”, a sometimes devastating “emotional reaction that follows from having one’s core values disrupted”. No wonder most people are reluctant to accept what the authors term “the gift of doubt”, however valuable it might be.
There is a risk that readers will come away from this book with a renewed sense of superiority, rather than of doubt. We are congratulated on reaching the conclusion: “You now have the tools to speak your mind, understand, and be understood. You are empowered to navigate even the most difficult conversations.” I did indeed feel empowered, and eager to seek out ideological enemies to crush with my new-found powers of sensitivity and compassion.
But the hard bit is applying these techniques to oneself, since there is a reason most of us prefer not to ask ourselves difficult questions about our own belief systems. Now, repeat after me: “I absolutely do not want to be wrong for one more instant than I have to be.” Or do I?
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