How to have a respectful conversation

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Recently I have seen three fine articles on how language can be barrier to honest and constructive communication. I am posting a brief a summary and a few reactions:

Respect diverse values

Arnold Kling suggests that it's helpful to recognize that your interlocutor's way of framing social issues is sometimes reasonable, and then gently remind them that it is not applicable all the time:

When arguing with a progressive, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular classes of people as oppressors and other classes as oppressed.” Slavery is an example. Proceed then to suggest that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, borrowers who obtained homes with no money down are not necessarily oppressed, and the banks that lent them the money are not necessarily oppressors. [emphasis added]

Note that concerns about "oppression" are ascribed to progressives by Kling (and Haidt), which matches my experience. But then why is there so much vocabulary of victimhood (allegations that "we are not great again because the president has apologized" or that "we're not winning anymore", etc.) on the right?

Overall, it sounds compelling to acknowledge different types of concerns and judging the narratives case by case, rather than asserting universality. (Kling also outlines hypotheses about how conservatives and libertarians think, apparently inspired by Jonathan Haidt.1)

Try to be constructive

David Blankenhorn has seven ideas for depolarization in tense conversations:

  1. Criticize from within.2

  2. Look for goods in conflict.

  3. Count higher than two (i.e. avoid binary thinking)

  4. Doubt.

  5. Specify.3

  6. Qualify (in most cases).

  7. Keep the conversation going.

How language matters

A new analysis of congressional speech from 1873 to 2009 documents that "Democrats and Republicans now speak different languages to a far greater degree than ever before".

Though the authors do not explicitly say that it's silly to favor a policy based on its name, that's a message that I am choosing to take away:

Laboratory experiments show that varying the way political issues are “framed” can have large effects on public opinion across a wide range of domains including free speech (Nelson et al. 1997), immigration (Druckman et al. 2013), climate change (Whitmarsh 2009), and taxation (Birney et al. 2006; Graetz and Shapiro 2006) ...

... Language is also one of the most fundamental cues of group identity, with differences in language or accent producing own-group preferences even in infants and young childre (Kinzler et al. 2007). Imposing a common language was a key factor in the creation of a common French identity (Weber 1976), and Catalan-language education has been effective in strengthening a distinct Catalan identity within Spain (Clots-Figueras and Masella 2013). That the two political camps in the US increasingly speak different languages may contribute to the striking increase in inter-party hostility evident in recent years (Iyengar et al. 2012).



  1. Kling: "I wish that people would begin political conversations by conceding that the generic way that their opponents view the world is sometimes correct. Start by saying, "It is sometimes appropriate..." My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other."

  2. Blankenhorn quotes Michael Walzer: “We criticize our society just as we criticize our friends, on the assumption that the terms of the critique, the moral references, are common.”

  3. Blankenhorn writes: "all categories are abstractions, and when we turn the healthy need to categorize into the sloppy habit of categorical thinking—applying abstract labels (such as the political labels “Left” and “Right”)—to everything and everyone on the grounds that we have accurately separated them into non-overlapping categories, the result is personally and socially harmful. ... A second way to favor specificity is to consider each issue separately and on its own terms, as opposed to assuming the validity of a governing ideological framework, such as “conservatism” or “liberalism.”