Responsible Rhetoric In The Age of Polarization

America is the most polarized it has been in my lifetime. Even the Covid-19 pandemic, an exogenous threat, has simply reinforced this polarization, and the protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death have pushed opposing sides even further apart.

Instead of discussions, nearly every conversation between those disagree has become a debate. Given this “us versus them” environment, how can we best responsibly engage in public or private discussion?

In a recent conversation, Barry Schwartz posed the following dilemma:

If we focus on marketing our ideas, we increase the chances of short-term progress towards our goals. But in focusing on partisan advocacy, in the long-term, we end up degrading the respect for truth.

By trying to “win” debates, we all lose by growing ever more detached from the notion of objective truth.

Being an inveterate optimist, I believe there is a way around the dilemma by following a three step process:

  1. Start by seeking the truth as you see it. After all, reality is like gravity–it’s hard to defy it over the long term. Sharpen your understanding by considering opposing arguments and finding facts and evidence to demonstrate your beliefs.
  2. Try to understand the principles of those with opposing beliefs. (We have to argue based on principle, since by definition, opposing sides cannot agree on positions or people.) Have a conversation where you do not try to argue or persuade, but display an honest and sincere desire to understand in a non-judgmental way.
  3. Advocate for the truth by appealing to the other side’s principles. Trying to persuade another person’s mind with arguments based on your own principles is solipsistic and ineffective. Jonathan Haidt‘s book, The Righteous Mind, provides a plausible explanation for some of America’s liberal/conservative polarization by pointing out that the two groups emphasize different moral foundations. When trying to persuade the opposite group, frame arguments based on the moral foundations that resonate with them.

This approach prioritizes striving for the truth (no one should feel absolutely certain that they have found it), but also greater understanding, and ultimately makes you a more effective advocate and evangelist for your particular set of beliefs.

Jonathan Haidt has argued that reason is more like a lawyer than a judge; most of us deploy our logical mind to support the decisions we’ve already made. With my approach, you hire an attorney who will seek the truth, but who will also study the jury and make the arguments that are most likely to resonate with them and win the case.

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