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A new conversational norm

I often see political discussions break down into dishonest disbelief. “How could you possibly think that?” a person says. I call it dishonest because each person uses evidence and arguments that he surely knows his opponent has rarely if ever heard. If this wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be a disagreement to begin with. Yet he acts as though his discussion partner is deliberately closing her eyes to something right in front of her. Whether the topic is energy policy, reforming the police, or a politician’s personality, most people seem to enter the conversation assuming all parties hold the same information.

But they don’t. We’re almost never working from the same collection of anecdotes and facts. So you’ve read four articles about nuclear energy policy in the past two years, and you’re acting like an expert? Well the other person read six articles (wow) that framed the issue in an entirely different way and highlighted different facts. All sides should realize that this is usually the situation.

To arms! I propose a new social norm to remedy this problem. It must become acceptable to ask anyone and everyone, “What is your information diet?” (If you don’t like that phrasing, you could just ask them which news outlets they frequent.)

I’ve been asking people this question for the past year or so. It’s worked out pretty well. Nobody seems to have been offended, and it’s a good starting point for discussing the variety of opinions that exist on a topic.

This shouldn’t be asked in an accusatory or aggressive way. It should come from genuine curiosity, before you reciprocate with a summary of your own diet. No matter their natural political tendencies, someone who reads National Review will end up with a very different picture of events and priorities than a reader of Jacobin magazine. If this difference is in the front of our minds at the beginning of the conversation then it’s easier to remember that the other person is operating in a different world, and if they’re wrong it’s not entirely their fault. Our opinions are not simply “shaped” by our information soup of news, TV shows, and friends---our views are almost wholly determined by these sources, though we often pretend otherwise. Few people have time to read/watch multiple outlets. Almost nobody has a broad feel for the elephant, and those who do tend to be journalists, spending (wasting?) hours per day absorbing the opinion landscape of the national press.

Once both debaters have a notion of each other’s news ecosystems, it encourages each person to be more humble and open. “Any fool can see that nuclear power will be cheaper than solar power in the long run,” naturally gets replaced with, “I just read---I think on CNN---that some energy economists think nuclear might get cheap very quickly.” The latter is more constructive for reaching agreement. Being pressured to at least think about your source makes the conversation less contentious and less personal. This norm wouldn’t fix toxic political discourse, but it might help in some otherwise stalemated discussions.

On a related note: For a tickle (or slap) to the brain, check out the theorem stating that honest disagreements are literally impossible. It’s worth pondering. When someone proposes that you should agree to disagree, you’ll think of this concept. (I first read about this on Scott Aaronson’s blog.)

Don’t be shy. Try it out. If you seem to have a fundamental disagreement with somebody, both of you can begin by admitting the obvious fact you have different bedrocks of information. This realization might lead to cooler emotions and a bit more intellectual progress.


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