How do we fix our broken conversations? Last year I wrote a summer letter about the loss of real conversations. It was a letter I felt had to be written, both for myself to grasp the moment we were in, but also for others to reflect upon, and to hopefully create a bridge.
This year’s letter will tackle some of the same quandary. It seems like things have only gotten worse. We are obsessed with different talking points of emergencies and crisis – serious ills in society where we are headed for disaster. But the way everything is communicated is through a binary lens, a reductionism, where everything is reduced to one cause or thing to base our decisions on. Either you are on the right side of history or you’re not. Nuance is no longer present in our public dialogue.
It seems like if we don’t fix the way we communicate, we will never solve any crisis or emergencies in a meaningful way. In a way that conserves our free democracy. That thought is frightening when our lives depend on us coming together to fix the perils we created for ourselves.
In Norway, where I live, we just had the prime minister election. Political commentators and politicians have talked continuous in the months leading up to the election, about this being an environmental election. Meaning one of the main focuses is climate change and the actions necessary to address it. As a consequence, The Green party in Norway, have been getting a lot of talking time, and made it crystal clear that they will not collaborate with other parties who doesn’t stand as firm as them in their climate policy. Even though it was predicted that the parties fronting climate as their leading affair, would be the one’s winning the people’s vote, it did not turn out this way.
Political commentators have discussed various causes for why people didn’t vote for The Green Party, when environment and climate was made such an important issue during the election. I’m not going to get into all of them, but one of possible explanations are very interesting. It nails down exactly the point about communication – that their rhetoric didn’t unite people to come together to tackle climate change, it did the exact opposite.
The kind of rhetoric I’m alluding to here, can be understood as identity politics on steroids. Environmentalist often talk about the requirement to use this kind of rhetoric, because we are in a crisis and people need to wake the f up. When this becomes the justification, it’s obvious to anyone sane that this is a slippery slope. With this kind of justification you appoint yourself the arbiter of truth and demands everyone to follow what you think is the right way forward. When we’ve open up for this kind of rhetorical method in one area – everywhere with communication, will eventually follow.
I’m not saying environmentalist is the once to blame for introducing this rhetorical move. How we ended up communicating in this way is a much more complex problem. Many points to our communication platforms, implying things like; “this is Twitter-behavior” or “only what people do behind screens”. Our communication technology might have been the the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nevertheless, we now see this deterioration spilling out everywhere. Today, a simple thing as your medical choice might be taken as you being a traitor; a scapegoat we are all justified to attack, gaslight and cancel.
When we communicate, we signal. It is no way around signaling. On a daily basis you signal who you are and what you value. Trying hard not to show people who you are and what you value, is just another way of signaling. Of course, most signals are unconscious on the part of the signaler. We all acknowledge the obvious and explicit signaling, and we can all think to ourselves “how embarrassing”. But what has happened to our signaling in the last decade? Suddenly Shakespeare’s words make complete sense; all the world’s a stage – today everyone has a platform, a stage, a pulpit – to signal to our peers, and the world, who we are and what we value.
Rob Henderson, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, wrote in Quillette in November 2019:
When I read that, I thought; can this be one of the reasons we seem unable to talk to each other? Or put differently, why we seem unable to have a conversation with people who we perceive as holding different beliefs than ourselves? I think this is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Think about it; today almost everyone has a smart phone – meaning it’s no longer as valuable to steal a phone as it was just 10 years ago. The same can be said for clothing, other material goods and leisure activities. One example that comes to mind, is travel. The last, maybe 5 years, it’s been a noticeable change in how we talk about travel, and what we do on our leisure time. A Norwegian comedian actually wrote a book and did a comedy tour about this topic – why the sudden change to “take” mountain tops on our leisure time. And yes, the phrase “take mountain tops” is actually the correct wording for this kind of behavior.
Maybe this is another form of luxury belief. Traveling is now so common and cheap, that everyone can afford it. The affluent therefore have to find a new way to signal their social status. When I talk to my grandmother about traveling, she always tell me that when she grew up, travel to foreign countries was only a faraway dream. Today, the world has become so accessible to us (moderns), that on some levels we no longer seem interested in exploring it. To map it further to the luxury belief hypothesis, choosing not to travel outside your own country is also signals of other beliefs about you as a person. First of all it can represent your politics – that you think traveling is bad for the climate. Also in our current moment, choosing not to travel can also be a signal of what you understand to be the appropriate perspective during a worldwide pandemic.
To circle back to where I started this paragraph; signaling is something we all do, all the time. Signaling is part of our evolutionary psychology. The communicative problem with signaling is when it stops being just one fraction of who you are and what you stand for, and starts being the only thing that matters. Non-verbal miscommunication is a key feature in understanding game theory, because it is one of the most common things we humans face, and signals are often a huge part of it.
Technology has provided everyone with a stage, and suddenly signaling has become one of the main social credits. When the rules of moral signals are so fluid, arbitrary and rapidly changing, the game, ultimately, becomes rigged. And the only one’s who can actually win in a game like that, is the one’s deciding the rules. Or, what becomes the common strategy; people trying to keep up with the signal police, and signal their moral values every chance they get.
What happened to breaking bread with people you don’t know? It used to be the notion that you could reason with most people. No matter their values and beliefs, as long as they had a grounding in reality, it didn’t matter if they where religious, progressives or believed in aliens. Most people don’t hold fringy, divisive ideas. Most people believe in base reality and common sense, and the things we disagree on are what the proper solutions to different problems are. Today, we’ve ultimately turned everything on its head. You can say that we face more complex problems today, because everything is intertwined and you risk doing harmful damage to one area, if you try to fix another area. But if it were true that most people hold the fringy ideas we are being fed by the media, politicians and activists, democratic societies would have collapsed by now.
As stated above, many people both scientists and others, points to exponential technology being a crucial part of the problem. We live in a hyper-novel environment, where what we know to be true today, can easily be discarded tomorrow. With so many social media platforms, the stage is always open for people to signal. And what we have learned from the click-bait-attention-economy; what drives traffic (aka attention) is the most divisive, polarized topics that are being signaled. And it’s of course an evolutionary explanation to why exactly that grabs our attention; if you didn’t pay attention and tried to detect the most fringe ideas in a tribal community, those ideas could potentially endanger the whole tribe. So, paying attention to the fringe is a behavior that’s been selected for.
Still, we can pay attention to fringe ideas without destroying our shared humanity. But it requires that we don’t fall prey to the worst parts of our human nature. Deep down, everyone knows that you should base your understanding of someone’s social and moral values on something more than what they signal. Signals are only tiny fractions of us, and the things we consciously signal in today’s digital culture, because we want people to think that reflects back on us, might just be a shield, a defense or a “don’t hurt me wall”. Which is one of the reasons nothing meaningful can come from jumping to conclusions based on reductionism. About other people, other cultures, politics and solutions to complex problems (which are almost everything we face today). No important issue and especially no human being, can or should be reduced to a tiny fraction of what they really are. In our world, with exponential technology as our trajectory forward; this reductionism will only lead to more self-destruction, dehumanization and possible self-termination.
Our actions are what really matters. Authentic, emergent actions that reflects genuine human interaction. Situations were you actually have to risk a little for the experience to be truthful; reciprocity, mutual respect and humility. Gratitude, trust and real love.
Rex Murphy, the 74 year old Canadian commentator and author, said it beautifully;
My phases through life, trying to comprehend human communication, has looked a bit like this; naive optimist (because I didn’t know much, or anything really), to cynical semi-pessimist (because physical reality hit me hard several times), to where I am today; trusting skeptic. Meaning I have a basic trust in humanity, with the knowledge that trust is not something you naively earn, or something to be taken for granted. In my opinion, basic trust in humanity should be regarded as sacred, but still, healthy skepticism and critical thinking should be awarded and warranted as the thing that will steer us in the right direction.
The nihilism and apathy of our time, and the mistrust in our fellow human beings, are a huge part of what’s preventing us from fixing many of the problems at our peril. I’m believe that to be true, all the while being very aware of the fact that my home country, Norway, is regarded as a high-trust country. This goes back to the point about our global connectedness. If people in high-trust countries are willfully blind to the deterioration happening in other democracies (as well as more subtly in their own), we are all eventually screwed.
Despair never leads to any meaningful problem-solving. That doesn’t mean you have to be optimistically hopeful. You only need to have faith in humanity. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on everything. No time in history has that been the case. But the fact of the matter is that we can’t loose faith in our humanity. The better angels of human nature are the only way to steer this ship, our world and everyone in it, in the right direction. And all of that starts with communication based on human dignity, from our everyday conversations to public dialogue, as the pillar of society.