Summer Reading Series: How to Have Impossible Conversations (UPDATE)

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

Title: How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (published in 2019; $17; available for purchase here)

Authors: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

Update June 7, 2021

It’s come to my attention, via a Salon article that my colleague Melissa Biggs at the Humanities Institute shared with me, that both James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian are currently involved in crusades to delegitimize critical race theory and gender studies. According to the article, they also have links to white supremacist networks and have promoted COVID conspiracy theories. 

My first urge was to gut the post entirely. I do not wish to amplify the voices of these authors. I frequently found their tone and rhetoric repellent when I was reading the book, and I find the political beliefs and public behavior described in the Salon article abhorrent. 

As a scholar and teacher of literature, however, I believe that the reader has power. Power to determine for themself what they need texts, and their authors, to do and be for them. Power to reject a text and/or its authors for failing, for whatever reason, to deliver what they need from them. Power to pull meanings out of texts that the author never intended but that are available in the text to be pulled and applied to the reader’s own purposes, which may be very, very different from the author’s (or even the text’s) purposes. 

My post on How to Have Impossible Conversations is an attempt to exercise reader’s power — to find what I can pull out of a text and apply towards my own purposes for dialogue, which are pretty clearly different from the authors’ purposes (as I acknowledge in the original post, the text of which, below, I have not changed at all). I believe that to find bits and pieces of the text that can align, or can be made to align through conscious repurposing, to decolonialist and anti-racist pedagogies is not an endorsement or misreading of the authors. Nor does it (necessarily) erase, excuse, or wallpaper over their harmful ideologies and actions. Rather, it can be an act of resistance against them and those like them. 

If I had been more aware of the authors ahead of reading, I wouldn’t have read the book at all. But since I can’t unread it, I also won’t unwrite my thoughts about it (yet) — just add to them, in light of new information, and also allow them to further develop and evolve in light of further thought and (I hope!) discussion from this community. Maybe this post will end up coming down entirely. Should it?

I would love to hear from you publicly (in the comments) or privately (via email: sarah.ropp@utexas.edu) about your thoughts on any of what I’ve written above or below.

Context of Creation: This is a mass-market text for a broad audience written by a philosophy professor and a mathematics PhD. Its purpose is to “[offer] solutions to the problems of timidity, incivility, fear, and distrust that blight our conversational landscapes” (6). Defining “impossible conversations” as ones that “feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics, or worldviews” (3), the authors promise to help the reader “learn how to intervene in someone’s thinking and help them change their own mind and how to mutually search for truth” (8).

Context of Reception: I read Impossible Conversations on a plane from Austin to a city on the east coast. I began it in a spirit of agitation; my six-year-old son had been uncharacteristically whiny and uncooperative in the airport, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the read, anyway. I was intensely irritated by the hyper-confident, corporate sales-pitch tone of the introduction, which I interpreted as stereotypically white and male: the authors assure the reader that they’ve “included exactly what you need to immediately have effective conversations across deep divides” (7) based on “proven, evidence-based techniques” (6). The book felt like it was going to be gimmicky, full of “tips and tricks” to convert a conversation partner cast permanently as less logical and rational than oneself rather than tools for authentic engagement and mutual respect and learning. As I got into the section on building rapport in the first chapter, however, I slowed down, recognizing many of the “tips” as community-building practices I’ve advocated for (and others as good ideas new to me). How is this different from building community? I asked myself. Is it just the corporate-rhetoric connotations of the word “rapport” that I’m chafing at? Is it the “instant results,” one-conversation focus? Does it really matter if the authors are talking about dialogue with a different purpose than (I think) I’m going for? Isn’t it possible that there’s still something of value within this text? I reminded myself that to take an adversarial stance and read (only) to critique and condemn rather than (also) to learn and be challenged is to reproduce exactly the kind of combative discursive engagement I want to unlearn and help students unlearn. My heart rate slowed, my son nestled comfortably into my side, and I read on — continuing to register the book’s missed marks (such as the authors’ citation of exclusively male scholars and dismissal of identity) but open to whatever might be of use. 

Overview of Structure and Content 

The seven chapters of How to Have Impossible Conversations are organized as a series of lists that sequentially build expertise, from the fundamentals of a good conversation for pre-beginners to “master level” approaches to handling ideologues (e.g. “Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds”). 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers

Relationships

“Friendships based solely on religious or political agreement are rarely sustainable, at least until some deeper substance to the relationship is found. In fact, friendships with these bases can be the opposite of sustainable, as people with weak interpersonal ties often become more guarded and warier when small differences in opinion manifest themselves over time. In a relationship built only upon superficial moral markers like religious or political identity, small differences can threaten the only basis the relationship has” (74). 

  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with this idea, based on your own experiences and observations? If not religious and political identity, what (else) constitutes a strong interpersonal tie between people? 
  • What implications does this idea have for the classroom or college campus, where people are both interacting with people different from them in ways they might not have encountered before and forming (often very important) new relationships? 

Golden Bridges 

The authors define a Golden Bridge as “a means by which your conversation partner can change his or her mind gracefully and avoid social embarrassment.” The opposite of ridiculing and shaming, a Golden Bridge is a statement that affirms the other’s inherent desire to be good and do right, not for the purpose of excusing wrong thinking or behavior but in order to make it easier for a person to acknowledge the wrongness of their thinking or behavior and change it. Examples include “I can see where you were coming from,” “There’s so much confusing and inaccurate information out there and it’s so hard to sift through it all,” or “I don’t think you meant to say something offensive.” The authors write, “Golden Bridges are particularly important if someone believes they’re knowledgeable about a specific issue, is deeply morally invested, or faces a challenge to their sense of personal, moral identity” (76-77). 

  • What is your reaction to the notion of a Golden Bridge? Have you responded to students or colleagues with some version of a Golden Bridge before? 
  • What is the relationship between a Golden Bridge and the emphasis on affirmation stressed in Stop Talking
  • How might you integrate Golden Bridges into norms for dialogue or invite students to consider their utility and value? 

Outsourcing 

“Outsourcing is a broad strategy for turning to outside information to answer the question ‘How do you know that?’ The goal is to help your conversation partner become curious enough to want to know how they can justify their knowledge claims, or to help you realize something you haven’t had access to.” The authors stress that in a tense, emotionally fraught conversation, unsolicited “data dumping,” or references to fact-based evidence, is rarely received well even when the information people are referencing is precise and accurate — which it often is not. Outsourcing, as I choose to interpret it, is a way to slow the conversation down by seeking to draw closer to sources of information about the topic (to echo an idea from Stop Talking). While the authors focus on “experts,” “evidence,” and “counterarguments” in a sort of judicial sense — a quest for empirical, objective truth — I would suggest that part of the outsourcing conversation might be to ask, “Whose voices are missing?” or “Who are the stakeholders here, and where would we go to find the information that each stakeholder might find most important?” Such questions allow for a more nuanced consideration of what constitutes meaningful “evidence” besides/in addition to statistics and other forms of quantitative data. 

  • How do you generally intervene when students make sweeping or unsubstantiated claims in dialogue? Have you encouraged outsourcing before?
  • Thinking of a particular course, if you were to curate an archive of sources for students to refer to during typical conversations, what academic and, especially, non-academic resources would it include besides the texts already on your syllabus? 
  • What about “insourcing” — that is, in which contexts is it appropriate to allow/invite students to be themselves the source of meaningful evidence within a conversation? 

2 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation 

Set Purpose for Dialogue 

The authors of Impossible Conversations provide a succinct list of the main reasons people choose to engage in a conversation with each other, which I have adapted into an infographic entitled “Why Are We Here? 7 Main Purposes for Dialogue,” available as a PDF HERE (also available online HERE). 

You might explore these purposes with students and ask them when they have engaged in dialogue for each of these reasons in the past. What were those experiences like? Which form of engagement felt most meaningful for them? What behaviors and language were typical for each kind of dialogue? Have students decide collectively what the purpose of their dialogue(s) will be, in general and/or before each new dialogue session. 

Define Terms Together 

Sometimes, the authors write, apparent clashes of ideology are really just superficial clashes of words: “Someone might say, for example, ‘I hate the government,’ when they mean they hate intrusive government, corruption, bureaucracy, concentrated political authority, or regulations that don’t comport with their values. Someone else might claim they like the government when they really mean they want security, stability, social services, and infrastructure. If these two people have a conversation about ‘the government,’ there’s a risk they’ll argue even if they agree about almost every issue of policy. Such clashes are frustrating because they appear to be substantive but are really about the meanings of words” (41). 

Take time before, during, and after dialogue to define important terms that will be, are, or have been in use. This can be simple and top-down: “For the purpose of today’s conversation, ‘diversity’ refers to. . . .” Or it can be process-driven and collaborative, with students contributing definitions of their own, looking up meanings, and engaging in dialogue about what a given term means. Or it can be more meta: Use a tool like Mentimeter to have students explore the connotations a word holds for them by creating a word cloud, and then discuss definitions. Take time in the middle of dialogue to stop and highlight the different ways in which a key word is being used and urge participants towards clarification and consensus around meaning, if necessary. After dialogue, have students describe how their understanding of, or relationship to, a key word in the conversation changed as a result. 

One In-Depth Activity: The Unread Library Effect 

The authors of Impossible Conversations identify a fallacy common among anyone with strong opinions that they dub the “unread library effect” — basically, a tendency to believe that you know or understand much more about a given topic than you really do, because of the access that you have (or exposure you have had) to other people’s expertise. We not only claim intimate familiarity with a topic on the basis of relatively shallow engagement, we also formulate strong opinions about that topic on the basis of this imagined familiarity — like never actually reading that book you bought on sight because you liked the cover and the blurbs on the back, but feeling confident about telling people what a good book it is. Therefore, becoming aware of our own susceptibility to the unread library effect (and where our knowledge, imagined or real, comes from) can help us develop deeper understanding of the issues we care about as well as greater empathy for others’ strongly held beliefs. 

HERE is an activity whose purpose is to guide students to self-awareness about the unread library effect, as well as reflection about the sources from which they derive their knowledge and understanding. It can be done as in-class independent freewriting, at-home writing, in-class dialogue with a partner, or some combination of these. It is designed to be inductive — that is, rather than being introduced to the meaning and purpose of the activity upfront, students are asked to think critically about its purpose at the end (and guess at a definition for “unread library effect”). It is important to stress, though, that the point is not to “catch” people in a state of ignorance or shame them for incomplete understanding. The point is also definitely not to validate one source of information, such as academic research, over another, such as culturally or experientially derived knowledge. Rather, it is to reflect on unacknowledged gaps in understanding. 

The authors of Impossible Conversations also stress the importance of “modeling ignorance” by acknowledging the gaps in your own knowledge and understanding whenever possible, as well as modeling self-reflectiveness around how your own beliefs and ideas have developed (37). Therefore, it would be particularly powerful to participate in this activity alongside your students, preferably early on in the semester in order to establish an atmosphere that allows for vulnerability, not-knowing, and self-awareness. 

Next week . . . 

We will be reading Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education, edited by Timothy J. Shaffer and Nicholas V. Longo (2019)

 

2 thoughts on “Summer Reading Series: How to Have Impossible Conversations (UPDATE)”

  1. I think Sarah’s original post on this book is a valuable illustration of three important communication practices: 1. how not to let our own prejudices (eg against slick publications and languaging) stop us from listening, 2. how not to let our emotions of the moment (regarding her son’s behavior) color our ability to be open in the next moment (while reading the book), and 3. how to uncover the good ideas and suggestions (in this case about how to turn arguments into fruitful conversations) even if we have to dig a bit.
    The fact that Sarah chose to leave the piece she wrote unchanged after finding out about the authors’ personal politics illustrates a fourth communication principle: 4. Don’t let ad hominem arguments prevent you from hearing the good in what someone says or does. Bravo, Sarah!

    1. Thanks very much for these thoughts, Patricia — I’ve been including the “context of reception” in these posts precisely because I want to make the reader’s experience more visible and centralized. The position from which, and context within, the reader encounters a text matters quite as much, or more, as the context of creation, in terms of the meaning the reader is able to make from the text. I have to acknowledge, then, that the ability or willingness to listen and be open to the text is going to vary according to the reader’s positionality and experience and the degree to which the text or the authors make them feel unsafe, or simply unseen or uncared for. I really respect that refusal to listening and openness as the reader’s right. The medium of text (depersonalized, distanced) makes a difference, here, too — personally, if I were in a room listening directly to these two men, or being called a “bitch” over Twitter by one of them, I hope that I would not even try to engage, for my own self-protection. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dialogue in different mediums, and on different timelines, than a synchronous, oral, face-to-face discussion, and (again, as a “books” kind of person :), I think this is one of the advantages of dialogue-via-text — it allows us, at times, to practice a kind of openness and listening that can be impossible in face-to-face settings.

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