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Hard Conversations

Hard conversations are those that involve strong views about what is good, what is beautiful, what is meaningful, and what is ultimate. Such views are informed by what the philosopher Charles Taylor called “strong evaluations”. And their volatility is often evident in how animated and even hostile conversations can get.

The difficult thing about hard conversations is not the array of obstacles blocking compromise or agreement, or how they should end. What makes them difficult are instead the assumptions we tend to make about where such conversations begin.

This claim might strike the reader as bizarre or unwarranted. It seems to be saying agreement and recognition of what might be the best or correct view really doesn’t matter. That is certainly a risk my view skirts.

What I really want to say is that agreement or some fair conclusion to such conversations is not possible unless we first attend to some foundational requirements of reasoned discussion.

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The Conventional Wisdom & Zombie Hoards

A typical model of argument is the idea that the end is reached by agreement about what is true, and each side will marshal all it can in trying to demonstrate how its respective point of view is the correct one. Reference to facts, evidence, expert testimony, precedents, better reasons and definitions, etc. are the things that we might think would be essential to determining the outcome of an argument.

However, there has been a great deal of research in philosophy and sociology to show—rather depressingly—that hard conversations about things like climate change, evolution, and the current pandemic do not really involve commitments to a process of demonstrating what is true in the sense I have sketched above.

What researchers have found is that even where those involved in debates are educated, the discussants overwhelming tend to adhere to their respective political convictions despite the presence of counter-evidence or persuasive rebuttal.

Such fideism might not be as dramatic as skeptics wanting to disprove a government declared emergency about zombie hoards by seeking to get deliberately bit. But if this research is accurate, then it does set up a near-apocalyptic scenario in which reason has neither traction nor force.

We might then perhaps speculate on what is underwriting our reasons and beliefs—emotions, sentiments, neurologically evolved processes, alien spores . . . And this reveals a slippery slope – we don’t really have a reasonable basis to justify what we believe and what we do.

But I think there is at least one other consideration we have to examine before throwing out the possibility of reasoned debate.

Rock Bottom of Disagreement

You have probably had the experience of becoming involved in a hard conversation with a friend or family member who takes a distinctively different view than you. Out of good will, you decide to have a discussion and keep an open mind. And you also believe that you are in the right because, well, the ideas and beliefs you espouse are ones that you think are good. Of course, as it turns out, your friend or family member feels the same way about their own ideas.

Or consider another example: you begin a discussion on a heated topic and find your interlocutor has criticized your position by implicitly or explicitly identifying you with a group, party, or movement s/he opposes.

In both scenarios, things seem rather hopeless. And you can see why aiming at agreement or even compromise seems a tad too ambitious.

But a resolution of sorts may lie in returning to basics. By this, I don’t even mean basic facts since even this kind of agreement seems difficult in the most contentious of cases (e.g. climate change).

Returning to basics involves following one of the first things philosophy students learn, and it is something that academic philosophers never leave behind: Clarification.

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The Process of Clarification

Hard conversations often begin with rather large assumptions about the meaning of terms and concepts, about what others believe and what they reject. So one of the key benefits of asking clarifying questions about ideas, beliefs, and concepts is that it re-orients the landscape of discussion. No longer on the road populated by the zombie hoards, one might find oneself in a different space of reasons, even to the extent that one has started to question one’s own understanding.

There are many examples. One that always springs to mind is how the term socialism is thrown about and how I often get identified with being a socialist for my views. (Oddly, I have also been accused of being a proto-capitalist.)

Both cases are the same insofar as the terms socialism and capitalism can really mean a great many things. Clarifying what is meant by either is a start. But I would also hope that integral to this process is a clarification of what is being discussed by way of recourse to the historical and philosophical lineage of these terms.

Socialism, for example, is often equated in the media today with totalitarian communism. But delving quickly into history reveals that 20th century socialism had mainly to do with social organization according to engineering – the perfect social model. Appeals to social welfare today have little to do with this kind of overall design and more with arguments about how much and how far some things should be publicly funded.

Such clarifying intentions may lead to other terms that require clarification—such as, tax, public goods, and ownership. One can see how the typical aim of coming to agreement can seem rather naive in view of this process.

But if the conversation (and not agreement) is what matters, it is something that is going to take time; it will require nurturing. As a colleague of mine, Graeme A. Forbes, might say: hard conversations are diachronic as opposed to synchronic—that is respectively, they involve ideas that have a complex life and history as opposed to being one-dimensional in meaning. Indeed, such complexity might require enlisting outside resources and reading to help fill in the space of reasons.

Being competent with such resources is, of course, the aim of the liberal arts education. The humanities humanize in the sense of providing each person with the capability and resource to begin the process of reasoned inquiry and debate. We lose our ability as a civilization to communicate with one another if we lose this education and training.

So what is hard about hard conversations? Accepting that agreement is too ambitious a goal; instead we ought to commit to a process of clarifying ideas and beliefs.

While there may be no agreement (not as if there is under the typical model!), the space of reasoning may change such that more fruitful discussion is possible, such that we may actually dwell closer to one another.

About Me

Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.


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