The Three Languages of Politics
Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians use different languages to justify their beliefs. This increases polarization. This book enables readers to better understand different points of view.
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How to better think and communicate, in less than an hour,
With this extended essay, economist and blogger Arnold Kling grapples with the problem of intelligent, well-meaning and decent people talking past each other on the critical issues of the day. How can this be? What is the solution?
Arnold Kling has a hypothesis, which he calls the ‘Three-axis Model’. In his model, we each have a way we tend to think and communicate about issues. These ways have polarized along three different axes (I’ll get to them in a moment). Just as right handed people use their right hand without thinking, we tend to think and communicate at our comfortable point in the spectrum of each axis. This serves to quickly validate our existing views, allow us to discard discordant information and reinforces us within our tribe of similar believers. Unfortunately, just as using the wrong hand is awkward and obviously wrong, these ways are so different from how people polarized on other axes think that it marks us for dismissal by their tribes, even as it reinforces them in their own.
The challenge then is, how do we step back from these dominant ways to thinking to see the world through the eyes of others and communicate with them on terms they would understand and recognize, rather than dismiss? How do you have a discussion that informs, rather than one that simply reinforces the existing polarization? Arnold Kling here outlines the beginnings of an answer.
To get to his answer, he starts by hypothesizing three polarized axes of thought:
oppressor/oppressed [naturally preferred by progressives]
civilization/barbarism [naturally preferred by conservatives]
freedom/coercion [naturally preferred by libertarians]
Few of us are so one dimensional as to be entirely along one axis, but generally there is an axis we tend to automatically turn to without thinking. If we actually think, it can be different, but as Daniel Kahneman persuasively argues in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we do this far less often than we realize.
Even when presented with an issue about which we would all agree, the three different axes still produce discord. The holocaust, for example. Seen along the oppressor/oppressed axis it becomes a prime example of the evils of allowing anti-semitism. That is, the deliberate creation of an oppressed group. Along the civilization/barbarism axis, it is a prime example of moral values collapsing when a nation’s institutions are subverted. For freedom/coercion, it becomes an example of what goes wrong with unchecked state power. Despite agreeing on the evil, each solution is at cross purposes to the other and marks you for dismissal by those operating instinctively along a different spectrum.
Arnold Kling does not ask anyone to change their views, but he does challenge his readers to develop the capacity to think along the other axes, not in the caricatured ways permitted of the other axes by your own, but in ways that would be recognized as valid by those operating on that axis (Bryan Caplan’s ‘Ideological Turing Test’). If nothing else, it will improve our ability to understand those coming from a different perspective, to communicate effectively with them and gain some skepticism for views that would otherwise reassuringly resonate with your own. Well practices, this would momentarily trump instinctive thinking and briefly allow deliberate thought processes to be engaged.
We may not change any minds, including our own, but we will weaken the disconcerting tribal barriers emerging in the modern political debate, reduce the level of polarization across the axes of thought and better understand the opposites in our discussion as well meaning and reasonable people, albeit with a different perspective.
If, like me, you fear that our institutions will be gravely challenged in the coming years, are concerned about the erosion of our freedoms and worry about the impact this will have on the weakest among us (see how I tried to use language from all three axes!), then you owe it to yourself to practice the capacity to engage in a way that speaks to all of the participants in the debate.
All this for less than the cost of a gourmet cup of coffee and less than an hour of my time.
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A book that tries to understand, not defeat, opposing viewpoints,
The gist of the book is: political discourse tends to run along three axes, which are incommensurable. Liberals tend to judge along an oppressor-oppressed axis, Conservatives along a barbarian-civilization axis, Libertarians along a coercion-freedom axis. The purpose of the book is not to deconstruct and criticize what he sees as the dominant heuristics of each group, but to use them to help readers get into their ideological opposition’s shoes.
The strong point of this book is in trying to put the reader into his or her ideological opponents’ shoes. He brings up the ideological turing test (created by Bryan Caplan) which asks: if you were put in a room with your ideological others, could you pass as one of them? Psychology finds that, on average, liberals think they can make better conservatives than conservatives, and vice versa. Neither is right.
Now on to the parts of the book I disagreed with. Kling compares the diverging languages to an ‘audible’ in football: a purposeful confusion of signs to make sure the opposition doesn’t know what is going on. This seems farfetched to me. Diverging language among groups that are so large, tends to be an unintentional process that indicates that there are few contacts between groups. Polite society has politics as one of its taboos, and people tend to view media outlets that they agree with in the first place; this means that the network of people actually using political language in conversation is very fractured, just what you would expect from people with little real contact (and strong enforcement within each social group).
His portrayal of the explanations for the financial crisis seemed a little problematic. The movie “Inside Job,” which seems to be a very Progressive explanation of the financial crisis, is told with a strong appeal to the barbarian-civilization axis. The director chronicles the ‘depravity’ of bankers, interviewing former prostitutes and others who can attest to the barbarousness of bankers. The barbarian-civilization heuristic seems to be somewhat common in Progressive discussions: witness discussions about gay marriage or creationism in schools. Their ideological opponents aren’t oppressors (though in the former there is some of that), but barbarians who refuse to embrace civilization–a civilization that embraces science, and sees traditional hierarchies as barbaric (as well as oppressive).
These differences in interpretation notwithstanding, this is an excellent and quick read. It is a rare duck that tries to improve political discourse rather than score points for the author’s team. There have been critics who argue that this book doesn’t advance the academic literature on the cultural theory of preference formation, and so on, but these critics miss the point. As James Buchanan (the economist, not the president) was fond of saying, it takes repeated iterations to force alien concepts on reluctant minds. There are few concepts more alien than respecting your political opponents, and this is an excellent iteration of it.
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If you want to write about political issues, read this first!,
It is rare to see an author treat all political flavors with both objective scrutiny and respect. This book can really help you see through the eyes of different political ideologies. If you want to speak or write about political issues, you should read this first to improve your understanding of political alliances and communicate better to a diverse audience.
Well written. Pleasantly succinct. Awards to the author!
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