Listening to the people who think we are wrong

Larry Kramer at the Hewlett Foundation: “Among the most corrosive developments of recent years—one that predates the election of Donald Trump—has been a breakdown in our ability to debate and reason with others with whom we disagree. The term du jour, “tribalism,” replaced the earlier “polarization” precisely to capture the added ingredient of animosity that has made even conversation across partisan divides difficult. Mistrust and hostility have been grafted onto disagreement about ideas.

Political scientists differ about how widespread the phenomenon is—some seeing it shared broadly across American society, while others believe it confined to activist elites. I lean toward the latter view, though the disease seems to be spreading awfully fast. The difference hardly matters, because activists drive and shape public debates. And, either way, the resulting take-no-prisoners politics threatens the future of democratic government, which presupposes disagreement and depends on willingness to work through and across differences from a sense of shared community....

Learning to listen with empathy matters for a number of reasons. An advocate needs to see an opponent’s argument in its strongest light, not only to counter the position effectively, but also to fully understand his or her own position—its weaknesses as well as its strengths—and so be properly prepared to defend it. Nor is this the only reason, because adversarial advocacy is only part of what lawyers do. Most legal work involves bargaining among conflicting interests and finding ways to settle disputes. Good lawyers know how to negotiate and cooperate; they know (in the phrase made famous by Roger Fisher and William Ury) how to “get to yes”—something made vastly easier if one fully and fairly comprehends both sides of an issue. There is a reason lawyers have historically constituted such a disproportionate share of our legislators and executives, and it’s not because they know how to argue. It is because they know how to find common ground.

Not that compromising is always the right thing to do. Without doubt, there are matters of principle too important to relinquish, and instances in which an adversary is too inflexible or too extreme to accommodate. In today’s public discourse, moreover, outright fabrication has become, if not quite acceptable, increasingly common. But one cannot know if or when these are the case unless and until one has examined the other side’s position honestly and confronted the weaknesses in one’s own position fearlessly…

Three techniques in particular pervade the practice of paying heed to an opposing argument without condescending to meet it:

  • First, there is the “straw man” method—a tried and true practice that involves taking the weakest or most extreme or least plausible argument in favor of a position and acting as if it were the only argument for that position; a variation of this method takes the most extreme and unattractive advocates for a position and treats them as typical.
  • Second is the practice of attributing bad motives to one’s opponents. Those employing this approach assume that people who take a contrary position know in their hearts that they are wrong and make the arguments they do for some inappropriate reason, such as racism or self-interest, that makes it easy to ignore what they have to say.
  • Third, a relatively new entrant, is what might be called the identity excuse: “We don’t need to listen to them because they are [blank].” Then fill in the blank with whatever identity you think warrants dismissal: a white male, a Black Lives Matter supporter, a Trump voter, a Democrat, the oil industry, a union, someone who received money for their work, and so on….(More)”.