Book Review of "How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide"
Peter Boghossian & James Lindsay, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, Lifelong Books, 2019, 248pp., $16.99, ISBN 978-0738285320 (paperback).
Reviewed by Rick Repetti, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY; Email: Rick.Repetti@kbcc.cuny. edu
How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (hereafter "the Guide") is, as its title suggests, a very practical how-to training manual that promises to guide readers through a well-structured course of study designed to enable them to discuss the most difficult topics with the most difficult of conversation partners, while simultaneously avoiding the sorts of exchanges that threaten to end relationships, if not invite more drastic consequences. In light of the current incredibly polarized political climate and the virtually ubiquitous tendency to be misunderstood, mischaracterized, and villainized, if not cancelled, defining the public sphere, the Guide serves as a beacon of hope for those of us who refuse to self-censor, to be silent, or to simply go along with what Douglas Murray described, in the title of his latest book, as The Madness of Crowds.
The Guide offers a well-thought-out, well-organized, and highly-researched set of strategies, explanations, examples, and lessons designed to enable the reader to effectively engage in increasingly difficult conversations with almost anyone on almost any topic, including ideologues who not only present themselves and their beliefs as not open to revision under any circumstances, but who view their dogmatism as a cognitive virtue. One concrete example of one of the many virtues of the Guide is that it manages to speak charitably even about dogmatic ideologues, explaining that in such cases what is typically behind this sort of "epistemic closure"—which term describes unrevisable beliefs, beliefs that are epistemically closed to new evidence or argument—are deeper moral values and issues of identity, a theme running throughout the book. The authors explain that when individuals' beliefs are revealed to be held independently of evidence, the reason is usually that they think that their holding those beliefs makes them a good person—as they quote Dennett's description of it, they believe in belief—and thus their loyalty to the belief represents an element of their sense of identity, their sense of themselves as good people. This charitable analysis promises to make it easier for the reader to view dogmatic individuals more compassionately, and thus to try to engage their underlying values in less of a confrontational manner, opening up the grounds under which their currently epistemically closed beliefs may become amenable to reason and evidence. While this perspective and/or attitude toward the dogmatic might strike the more cynical among us as naive, the authors back up this analysis not only with examples of its success and explanations therewith, but with solid empirical research about the relationship between epistemic closure and underlying senses of identity and values.
This example is also an example of another strategy on offer, that of placing things in charitable, rational contexts, or "reframing," but it is also one of many similar strategies employed throughout the Guide, each of which may be fruitfully compared with the basic exercises one practices in martial arts training, e.g., blocks, punches, kicks, rolls, stances, etc., all of which are basics, foundational. After learning the basics, the foundational skills, martial arts training typically advances in stages of increasing difficulty, with practice in various combination techniques, increasingly complex choreographed fighting sequences or forms (katas), structured sparring techniques employing simple to more complex combinations, and, eventually, free sparring. Similarly, the Guide is structured in a way that resembles the sort of cumulative skills structure one finds in martial arts training, where one begins as a white belt, then proceeds through various colored belts until one attains the black belt. In other words, each chapter in the Guide is presented as a necessary training for the chapters to follow, and the authors are repeatedly emphatic about readers not trying the more complex techniques until they have had significant experience and developed substantive skill levels with the previous chapters' techniques.
As a real training manual, the Guide, again akin to what we find in martial arts training, offers pithy, memorable names for its techniques, analogous to such martial arts terms as horse stance, snap kick, crescent kick, sword hand strike, and spinning backhand punch: "golden bridges," "introduce scales," "outsource", "calibrated questions," "reframe," "the unread library effect," and "seek disconfirmation," among many others. Golden bridges, for example, are statements that help lessen the risk of triggering your conversation partner's defense mechanisms, lessen the fear of losing face, and/or lessen the likelihood of polarization, such as "everybody makes mistakes," "this is a very complicated issue," or "we are all trying to figure out what's best here, doing the best we can, given what we believe," and the like, as opposed to statements like "how could you possibly believe that?" or "everyone with half a brain knows that." Introducing scales, to detail just one technique, is asking your conversation partner to place their confidence in their belief claim (or yours) on a scale, with zero representing no confidence in its truth and 10 representing absolute certainty in its truth. Depending on the confidence rating offered, one can follow up with more pointed questions that might provide clues as to the interlocutor's epistemological situation relative to that belief. For example, if they claim maximal confidence, a 10, you can then ask them why it's not 9.9, that is, what is it that pushed it from 9.9 to 10, why they don't have any doubts about it at all, or what could it take to lower their confidence to 9.9? Conversely, if their confidence in your belief claim is very low, you can ask them what it would take to raise it? Such questions open a path to the actual supports of the belief, and/or the lack thereof.
The Guide not only goes into this one technique, that of introducing scales, in great detail, but it does the same with its dozens of other techniques, offering many illustrative real-life examples (many of which from their own experience, a good number of them depicting their own failures that could have been avoided had they known or remembered these techniques at the time), an incredible amount of supporting research and evidence, much of it from cult deprogrammers, hostage negotiators, professional epistemologists, social science studies, and, appropriately, a vast body of literature on communication psychology in general and difficult conversations in particular. An alternative title, or sub-title, could have been, accurately, Zen and the Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Given the extent to which the strategies offered here are designed to actually avoid allowing conversations to become combative, however, perhaps a better martial arts reference would be, say, Tai Chi and the Art of Peaceful Communication, or The Yoga of Civil Discourse. In fact, yoga is a good analogy, for the way a good yoga instructor will tailor advice about poses to individual students' physical limitations, building advanced skills only after students have mastered simple postures, and creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and growth without simultaneously fostering competitiveness, ambition, or comparative judgments, so too the Guide manages to convey a similar spirit of a shared sense of aspirations toward evolved modes of being with others, understanding them, and sharing ideas with them in fruitful conversations as opposed to, say, teaching weaponized techniques for defeating one's dialectical opponents.
In fact, this brings up another virtue of this text: the authors make several remarks explicitly designed to convey this sense to their readers, encouraging in their readers—not only by their own well-crafted verbal examples but by explicit advice—the use of non-combative language. For example, the authors encourage the use of "conversation partner" as opposed to such terms as "opponent," "disputant," etc. Similarly, they encourage responding to points with which one disagrees with "yes, and" instead of "but," as these sorts of uses of language are less likely to trigger polarizing psychological effects. The book is loaded with these sorts of ideas, and many examples of them are deployed by the authors themselves, as above. As a philosophy professor and someone who debates with my peers regularly, in person, on social media, and in professional publications, I confess that I have been guilty of many of the things they advise against. Thus, one of the greatest takeaways for me from this text is that I need to reread it as many times as it takes for me to remember to stop doing the things it makes clear are contributing often unsuccessful elements to my dialectical experiences with my students and colleagues.
There are many other gems sprinkled throughout the Guide. For example, although Boghossian and Lindsay suggest that readers minimize the extent to which they engage in difficult conversations in social media venues, as these are generally not the sorts of venues conducive to fruitful exchanges, they acknowledge that the Guide may nonetheless be used as preparation for a form of social media ju jitsu for anyone who chooses to consistently apply its principles. Given the extent to which so many well-meaning individuals find themselves endlessly sinking deeper and deeper in metaphorical quick-sand in social media suffering, the Guide offers a very simple way out: you are under no obligation whatsoever to answer any comments, claims, accusations, or other promptings posted in your social media feed. Of course, this is but one of many other elements of communicative wisdom the Guide shares to help us navigate social media. But its emphasis on the fact that social media is not an ideal venue, on the fact that one is under no obligation to take the bait, and on its many other techniques for avoiding polarization in social media or in any discussion ought to satisfy the Buddhist ethicists among us, insofar as anyone following almost any of the advice here is clearly likely to reduce suffering and promote greater well being, the two chief moral goals of the path to enlightenment. Most of us need this teaching; some need it more than others.
This book does not emerge from a vacuum, however. One doesn't attain the conversational equivalency of a Tai Chi master without having the dialectical equivalent of many martial arts tournaments. The two elephants in this room, then, constituting the context out of which this book emerges, are Boghossian's earlier book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, and the so-called "New Sokal Hoax", aka "Sokal Squared". Let us address the latter elephant first, then the former.
Boghossian and Lindsay speak from what may be described as fairly hard core personal experience in the domain of having difficult if not impossible conversations, as two of the three scholars who, along with Helen Pluckrose (editor of Areo magazine), in 2017 and 2018 somewhat infamously exposed the field of "Grievance Studies," as they described it, for "concept laundering," that is, for publishing progressive ideological blather as if it is rigorously vetted scholarship, which other critical-theory-based progressive ideologues then go on to cite in their own writings, further constructing an ideological house of cards on the basis of ideologically motivated rhetoric and often what appears to be utter nonsense. Their exposé, quite humorous to critics of Grievance Studies, but rather embarrassing, humiliating, and professionally invalidating to anyone who published Grievance Studies materials themselves, involved these three authors successfully submitting a series of several completely farcical articles on topics in Grievance Studies to fairly reputable peer review journals, such as Hypatia, devoted to the sorts of critical-theory-based progressive socio-political values that the trio would consider Grievance Studies, such as queer studies, fat studies, cultural studies, race studies, gender studies, etc. This Grievance Studies exposé more dramatically replicates the earlier Sokal Hoax, by Alan Sokal in 1996, which similarly managed to get a silly article published in the journal Social Text. These articles basically simply make up incredibly nonsensical theories, fake research, and outlandish claims couched within the jargon of critical-theory ideology and its associated identity politics, and because it resonates with the peer reviewers, it manages to get published. One such absurd article was even awarded a distinction by its journal.
The Grievance Studies hoax trio is quick to point out that there is important and legitimate scholarship being done in these fields, and much more which remains to be done, but the fact that they managed to get several absurd articles published in putatively reputable Grievance Studies journals invalidates the current state of scholarship in those fields. The blowback that they have received from advocates of Grievance Studies has been harsh, and so I suspect they may have written this book in part as a way to educate themselves (and others) on how to proceed in its wake. If one were to take the Guide as a handbook for their critics in the world of Grievance Studies to use in trying to figure out ways to have meaningful conversations with them, then I would imagine Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose will have guaranteed their own success thereby. Implicitly, with such a manual in print, the burden is on anyone who fails to be able to have a discussion with them about Grievance Studies, or anything else, for that matter. For that reason alone, the book may be considered a success, on my view. But it has so much more going for it.
The other elephant in the history leading to this book, in my view, is its earlier incarnation as Boghossian's A Manual for Creating Atheists (hereafter, the "Manual"). Although, on a superficial glance, this interpretation might seem unfair to Lindsay's contribution to the Guide, the opposite conclusion might make more sense—we might credit Lindsay for the difference between the earlier Manual and the newer Guide, Lindsay being the one obvious difference between the two. Only they know who has contributed what to this work, however, so I will not speculate further on that matter. Let me explain, instead, the clear debt the Guide owes to the Manual.
Boghossian's earlier Manual is literally a collection of epistemological strategies for converting theists and agnostics into atheists. Whereas, like the Guide, the Manual also emphasizes epistemology over metaphysics, that is, the process of how and why we form and justify the beliefs we do over issues and arguments about the truth or reality of those beliefs, the Manual unabashedly takes it for granted that the metaphysical position of atheism is not only correct, but the only reasonable position on the subject of God's existence, and that theism and even agnosticism are not only incorrect and epistemically unjustifiable, but cognitive pathogens to be treated like societal diseases to be quarantined and eradicated. The Manual promises to arm a platoon of "street epistemologists" to use the tools of skeptical epistemic analysis as they engage in intellectual warfare against theists and agnostics, disabusing them of viral theistic and agnostic memeplexes. It is, in that sense, completely one-sided, and only uses epistemological and conversational strategies in the service of its atheistic metaphysics, its payment of lip-service to the effect that atheism is empirically revisable (because atheists would become theists in light of appropriate evidence) notwithstanding.
Don't get me wrong: The Manual remains a great read, as I noted in an earlier review of it here, regardless of one's metaphysics, but it is clearly an example of militant atheism, and I wonder how theists and agnostic who now read the Guide would fare in conversations with the Manual's street epistemologists. Boghossian clearly seems to have evolved from the sort of militant atheism we saw in the Manual anyway, and the Guide seems to absorb everything that is good about the Manual and to leave behind everything that is not.
By contrast, then, the Guide may be described as a much more enlightened incarnation of the same earlier intention, if that intention were to be described more abstractly as the desire to help us figure out ways to improve our epistemic situations via conversations with those with whom we disagree, as opposed to weaponizing skeptical epistemology in order to eliminate views in our opponents' minds we assume to be false and to install our own putatively true views in their stead. Indeed, one of the biggest comparative virtues of the Guide over the Manual is the fact that Boghossian and Lindsay frequently encourage the reader to think that it is the reader himself or herself, as opposed to his or her conversation partners, who may be the epistemically closed (dogmatic) ideologue. This is not to suggest that the authors lack a political philosophy or ideological orientation of their own, for as Grievance Studies hoaxers we may reasonably reliably infer that they clearly do. However, if one were unaware of their activities outside the parameters of the Guide, one would be hard pressed to figure out where to place them on the political spectrum based on the Guide alone. They come off here as almost view-transcending.
Arguably, however, because the Guide does sincerely advocate ways in which we can all engage in difficult conversations, it implicitly endorses the traditional liberal value of free speech. The issue of free speech has become politicized in the currently polarized climate, with those on the far left endeavoring to restrict speech to politically correct speech and seeking to deplatform, unplatform, or cancel anyone who engages in politically incorrect speech, and those on the far right insisting on unrestricted free speech, regardless of how politically incorrect if not racist the speaker's identity or beliefs are. While readers of the Guide can surmise—from its emphasis on how to have open conversations about impossible topics—that the authors fall on the side of this spectrum that favors free speech, all of their examples of engaging with conversation partners on the far left and the far right are treated univocally, even-handedly, and fairly. It really does come through that they value open conversations between individuals with radically opposing views more than they value this or that particular view. In that regard, it bears repeating, the Guide is lifetimes ahead of the Manual in terms of philosophical/spiritual evolution.
The Guide begins with an introductory chapter overviewing the rationale and structure of the book, with advice about how to use, followed by seven more chapters loaded with well-scaffolded strategies that make for a smooth, insightful, and at times uplifting read. Each chapter begins with a list of main techniques that will be covered in that chapter, followed by a section on each such named technique. The Guide has an extensive bibliography, an index, as well as hundreds of notes not merely referencing these materials, but explaining them and guiding the reader to follow up on the claims and strategies offered in the text.
I have but one—possibly technically irrelevant—objection to this excellent training manual, and that is that the authors could have been a little more realistic—and a little more often—about literally impossible conversation partners, who ought not to be called "partners," but rather opponents, if not trolls or flat-out disingenuous enemies. Let's return to the martial arts and yoga analogies. Some people simply are not out to have a conversation with you, but instead to verbally assault you, accuse you of bigotry, and make your expression of your own ideas increasingly costly and threatening to you, as part of their ideological, political, or cultural war against anyone who thinks the way you do. The dialectical equivalent of transcendence via yogic wisdom might be wise, but sometimes folks literally attack you, and when you're being assaulted it would be useful to have some martial arts techniques to fight back instead of just employing the art of fighting by not fighting—some actual combat techniques. In their defense, the book is about having "conversations," not verbal battles, so it might be thought to be inappropriate to share verbal combat techniques here. Fair enough. But whereas that justification would explain there not being, say, an entire chapter devoted to verbal Kung Fu, perhaps an appendix or a section on it would not be inconsistent with the conversation theme. Of course, above I emphasized that the Guide is lifetimes ahead of the Manual in terms of the Guide's metaphysical neutrality, open-minded epistemology, and thus its spiritual evolution, compared to the Manual's combative, militaristic atheistic missionary evangelism, so, keeping things in perspective, we cannot have it both ways.
This minor objection notwithstanding, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide is a must-read for anyone who enjoys, or wishes to enjoy, being engaged in difficult discussions with difficult people. It could not have come at a more opportune time. Again, it may be naively optimistic on my part, but I think that if most or even many of us on both sides of the present political and cultural divide were to not only read this book but, like me, to reread it while practicing its advice until mastering most of it, that alone could turn the tides, restore faith in civil discourse, and depolarize our country. The Guide is sorely needed, and highly recommended.