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How to talk about religion and politics (and why you absolutely should) - Part 2 - Have you already decided you are right and they are wrong?

This five-part series ‘How to talk about religion and politics (and why you absolutely should)’ explores the importance of having difficult conversations about the most controversial and divisive topics. How can we turn the most difficult of interactions into an opportunity to change minds, learn from others, and gain a deeper understanding of those who see the world differently from us? This is part 2. Part 1 can be found here

In part 2 we ask - Have you already decided you are right and they are wrong?

What, if any, is the difference between debate, discussion, and dialogue? I find this to be an interesting question, one which evolves the longer you sit with it. It may be that initially, you see no difference in these three words. As a Venn diagram, the three sets certainly overlap, and colloquially you could argue that these are synonyms, standing in for each other reliably in everyday conversation. Conversation is the key word here, the trifecta of debate, discussion, and dialogue all representing different forms of conversation between two or more interlocutors. Whilst some will argue that psychologically the human brain is sufficiently capable of double-think that we can enter into these situations internally, as the only participant, most will acquiesce fairly quickly that true conversation requires us to get out of our own head and into the wider world. That is to say, you can’t have a debate with yourself, you can’t discuss something with yourself, and you certainly can’t enter into a dialogue as the sole participant. What then, marks the differences in these conversations? Academics at the University of Michigan, specifically from the “Program on Intergroup Relations”1 have handily done this work for us, which I will paraphrase here:

  • Debate - “Might is Right”

  • Discussion - “The noisier, the smarter”

  • Dialogue - “Connectivity for Community”

These short and snappy descriptors begin to provide a hint as to what differentiates the three forms of conversation, debate linking to strength, discussion to intelligence, and dialogue to connectivity. These themes continue through their analyses and are strongly evident in the expected end-state of each conversation type, in essence how each conversation is likely to conclude, if indeed it does conclude:

  • Debate - In debate, winning is the goal. Debate implies a conclusion. 

  • Discussion - In discussion, the more perspectives voiced, the better. Discussion can be open or close-ended. 

  • Dialogue - Dialogue remains open-ended. In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal. 

These end-states are difficult to separate from the intended goal of the conversation which, worth noting,  may not be the same for both interlocutors. Should you wish to win an argument, whether you are right or wrong, then debate may be the approach for you. Do you have a firm belief that you are right about something and would like to impart that wisdom to others, without necessarily wanting to tear down their argument? Then you are likely to enter into a discussion, categorized by the writers of the piece as “serial monologues”, wherein each party takes their turn in espousing their belief, with little to no influence from the other's contribution. Dialogue differentiates itself from both debate and discussion in the fact that “In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions”.2

Debaters have already decided they are right, or, and I am primed to believe this second option is often true, they don’t care whether they are right. Only that they are in a position to win. The  “truth” isn’t the objective, winning is, whatever that means. This begs the question then, “Does truth matter?”. I suppose that begs another question “What do we mean by matter?”.

Mark Twain famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and we would likely all agree that in relation to fictional narrative stories, books, and movies for example, we are quite comfortable with authors twisting reality to fit their needs. Truth doesn’t matter in this context. The Washington Post in 2021, just days after President Biden took office, claimed that during Trump’s Presidency he lied “30,573”3 times, and at the time of writing it is likely that he will soon secure the Republican nomination for a third run at the White House. It may well be that to American voters, the truth doesn’t matter much in this context either. It may not even be the truth that we live in a shared reality! We may live in a simulation, an extra-terrestrially designed video game and nothing we experience day-to-day is “true”. Thus, nothing matters.

That being said, perhaps focusing on the truth isn’t necessarily the key point of conversation. Honesty may be a better term than truth, in this context at least. Perhaps the goal should be better summarised as, seeking a shared understanding. It doesn’t matter if the objective existence of our reality is true, or if we live in an alien-created simulation being played with by a teenage Martian, we FEEL like we have a shared reality, so we should act as such. We should act as though truth matters and seek, if not for truth, but maximal certainty, which takes honesty. 

So what’s the best way then to get to maximal certainty? Is it settling on an idea and aggressively debating the world to accept it? Might is right after all. It could be argued that the scientific method is the most reliable way of knowing things, so perhaps the components of that would be a good place to start. I would argue that of our three conversation types listed above, dialogue is the closest reflection of the scientific method. In science, we start with observation, create a hypothesis, predict the result, conduct an experiment, and make an informed conclusion. In debate we form a conclusion and then, using our power, attempt to push that conclusion to the forefront, no matter the counter-evidence that is presented to us. This refusal to bend to new information is not very scientific. Often seen as a weakness, the fact that scientists change their minds when presented with new evidence is the method’s greatest strength, and why human progress is so indelibly linked to the discovery of the scientific method. 

It is only dialogue that starts with the principle that both interlocutors may need to change their minds. Actually, let me be a stronger advocate and say it is only dialogue that starts with the principle that both interlocuters GET to change their mind:

“At any point in the conversation, if you realize you’ve been harboring an incorrect belief, say, “I just realized my belief might be wrong. I’ve changed my mind” Because this almost never happens, when it does, your conversation partner will likely be completely taken aback.”4

This quote from Boghossian and Lyndsay precedes the claim that modeling our ability to change our mind, increases the chances that the other person will change their mind, and helps to build rapport. More than this though, if sincere (that’s important), this type of response brings us closer to a shared understanding. This one statement brings us further from debate through discussion and brings us closer to a real dialogue where ideas are shared and a new shared truth, something closer to objective reality can be found. 

Of course, this is a very different form of conversation, where no one “wins”...or do both win? Either way, it is my opinion that we should do our best to move away from competitive conversations and instead relish the opportunity to honestly collaborate with others toward a shared understanding. Is it naive to think that through honest, good-faith dialogue, the truth will out? Perhaps. Yet I am confident that less competition and more dialogue will get us closer. To invoke the scientific method analogy a final time, I’d like to share a quote from notable Human Right’s Activist Mohammed Safa:

Science is not truth. Science is finding the truth. When science changes its opinion, it didn't lie to you. It learned more.5

And so, in our conversations, let us remain open, let us keep searching. Let us not be afraid to learn more.

2. ibid
4. Peter G. Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, "How to have impossible conversations: A very practical guide" Life Long, New York, NY, 2019


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