How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

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