When reasonable people disagree

I learned a lesson from the discussion after my post of two days ago. When reasonable people disagree — generally because of a disagreement about first principles — words matter. What makes this especially difficult is that the same words can have substantially different meanings to different listeners.

Getting these word choices right can make the difference between saying “this is my view of the world” and saying “your view of the world is wrong”. We would all agree that these are two very different statements. Yet it is all too easy to slip from the one into the other, when you are trying to speak across a fundamental divide of first principles.

For example, in my post, I used the phrase “fellow sentient creatures”. To me this sounds virtually identical to the phrase “sentient creatures”. Yet to someone who feels no tribal kinship with any being that is not human, the inclusion of the word “fellow” becomes an argument from conclusion, which in this case — as Dagmar pointed out — effectively came across as an (unintended) accusation.

It is perfectly non-controversial to say “this is a sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it”. It is quite something else to say “this is a fellow sentient creature, and I feel no kinship with it.” The latter statement would be absurd — so my use of the phrase was de facto a provocation, although I didn’t realize this until Dagmar pointed it out.

This kind of thing comes up in other discussions that take place across fundamental divides of first principles. For example, to someone opposed to abortion on principle, the statement “a fetus, when born, will become a person”, might sound very close in meaning to the statement “a fetus is a person”.

Yet to someone with a different worldview, these two statements are completely different. The former is non-controversial. The latter is heard by many people as an accusation that they approve of murder.

So here you have it — to have a discussion between people who differ on first principles, each participant must somehow learn to hear what words sound like to somebody who may have a completely different worldview.

This seems to me to be a rather difficult skill to acquire – yet one that would be very valuable to have in a civil society. Perhaps it is a skill that we should teach our children in school.

14 thoughts on “When reasonable people disagree”

  1. To me, the difficult issue is not only to be aware of differing world views and adapting one’s language accordingly. Sometimes, at least, I do want to use language as a tool to provoke, to trigger a discussion (only if people aren’t offended by the mere presence of a vegan, of course). I want to provoke just enough to get a thought process going, still using enough of the others’ world view language to reach them – as opposed to loosing them completely and being put into the extremist/freak category.

    The book “Vegan Freak” has helped me a little with that (and it’s a fun read). Also, you once said that vegans should still understand humor. That’s a tough one for me 😉

  2. Thank you Ken, for putting this in the words (using the right wording:-)).

    I was taught about those things in a course for young politicians, when I was in college. We had a course called “persuasive” rhetoric.
    The target was to persuade someone of something and to get along with objections.

    What manooh suggests is a classic of NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), when you try to “pace” the person you are talking to. It is a very fine method and you can go so far that you even copy the body language of the other person. You simply make the other person to feel comfortable with this.

    This “insecurity and guilt and angst” is called IGA-syndrom in rhetoric. It just leaves the other person no way out because you could not argue against it. And the only way to get along with it in an argument is to indicate what is happening.

    These situations occur quite often in real personal conflicts, when someone says things, like, you get on my nerves, what do you want here again, …
    They hurt the other person, without giving him or her a way to change things.
    But enough of this, I am about to end up with a rhetoric and conflict lesson. 🙂

    @manooh – humour is often hard, not only for vegans 🙂

  3. Manooh, I do indeed see your point. But to me it’s a balancing act, in that the expression of any world view runs the risk of turning to insult.

    I was struck by the difference in the comments of Dagmar and Michael — both wonderful and kind people whom I like very much — and who have prepared for me some delicious vegan meals when I have visited them.

    Dagmar said, more or less, “you’ve just used word choices to declare my world view as evil or clueless.” I thought that was a very legitimate point. When you accuse people who are not evil or clueless of being evil or clueless — even if you do it through careless word choices — then you cut off all discussion.

    Michael, on the other hand, effectively did to me pretty much what Dagmar said I shouldn’t do to her. He made it clear that he thought that on this subject I am effectively a religious fanatic with an irrational world view built on faith. The whole “sentient plants” thing and the misinformed talk about eggs was a bit much for me, I must say.

    I do think humor is important. But I also think that when I inadvertently accuse people of being ethically deficient — when in fact it would be more accurate to say they have a differing world view and set of fundamental principles, and are trying to live ethical lives within that world view — then I should own up to it and tell them I was wrong to merely be dismissive of their view of the world. Disagree yes, be dismissive no.

    And when somebody is condescending and dismissive toward my world view, I feel it is important for me to call them on that as well.

  4. By the way, I thought Michael’s next comment after that one was much better, and more consistent with the concepts of “persuasive rhetoric” that Dagmar discusses above.

  5. @Ken: I hope my next one is even better.
    It’s so much easier to communicate subtleties in the real world than in plain black and white (as well as loaded) words.

  6. Words can be tricky – as can be logic if it is applied to something that does not lend itself to clean logic (i.e. anything that has a visceral aspect to it). Science and logic don’t work particularly well when things get complicated (i.e. too many variables – especially if some of them are unknowns).

    Language can create or prevent a space for discussion. For example, I feel a very deep kinship with my fellow creatures, yet the conclusions I draw from that about how to live my life is one that is different from those of most vegans. Describing that choice as repulsive makes it difficult to locate common ground for discussion.

    Speaking in the general sense, there is a tendency (in all of us – even me) to follow a line of logic something like this: “If you feel like I do, you would make the same choices as I do. Since you have made different choices, you must be “other”. Another way to put it is: “If you understood what I do you would come to the same conclusions as I have. Since you came to different conclusions, you must not understand.” The tendency to distance oneself from those that are “other” is instinctive (a genetic survival thing), as is the tendency to try and homogenize one’s current affinity group by minimizing differences (through omission or dismissal) and highlighting similarities.

    Discussions with people in my affinity group often serve to make me feel better about my life and my choices, but I rarely learn as much as I can from discussions (sometimes very heated ones) with people outside my affinity group.

  7. Yes Katrin, I agree. “Describing that choice as repulsive” is exactly what we must not do, if we proceed from the assumption that all the people in the discussion are trying to live ethically, in their own way.

    I do think that there is a positive feedback loop involved in choices. People who are otherwise quite similar in many ways can make one choice that leads to another choice, and soon they have embraced an entire set of choices that are internally consistent, but not at all similar to the choices made by people who didn’t make that first choice.

    I like talking to people I disagree with. The part I don’t like is the very human tendency (which we must all resist — since we are all prone to it) to think “my view of things is rational, and these other people are indulging some sort of faith-based reasoning that they have merely deluded themselves into believing is rational”.

    In fact we are all proceeding from some set of fundamental first-principle assumptions. And fundamental first-principle assumptions — whatever they may be — are, by their very nature, indefensible.

  8. And nobody went rampaging with a rifle, to pick up on one of the first explanatory metaphors – and that’s now even more solidly within an American’s rights, so…. it could have been worse!

  9. David, I know you were just trying to make a funny comment about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, but that comment came across to me as a very unfair swipe at Americans.

    Nobody in the U.S. supports a right to go on murderous rampages. I’d prefer we try not to insult each others’ countries in these pages. Thanks.

  10. hmmm… I felt I was being sarcastic. After all, it’s also my country – so if anyone has a right to insult it, then….

    wait! I wasn’t insulting it!
    (Too late, the suggestive powers have taken hold.)

    So much for humor.

  11. Ah David, my fault. I actually forgot that you are originally from here. Yes, I agree, there is nothing rude in being sarcastic about our own country. Sorry about that! 🙂

  12. Andras, that’s very intriguing. I wonder whether most people would classify Hoppy more as a “deer” or as a “dog”. In other words, is Hoppy considered to be protected under the umbrella “an animal that is recognized as an individual, and therefore not classified as food”?

  13. I agree Ken, It is intriguing. Unfortunately, I can’t really say how most people would classify Hoppy. In fact I’m not even sure that the classification of ‘individual…not food’ is all that clear a delineation.

    For instance, Hoppy’s adoptive parents clearly think of him as a dog-like individual and a pet. So not food.

    Yet they also see him as having an intrinsic need to live wild. Therefore they accept that he might become a victim of hunters who would likely eat him. So food.

    And, while those hunters who had seen Hoppy’s website might give him a pass as an ‘individual’, they’d still be likely to see him as food, just with a get out of jail free card.

    I think Hoppy’s story is very compelling but I wouldn’t eat him even if he didn’t have a website. There are some that would, even knowing that he had been raised as a pet. That’s difficult to understand.

    I grew up with pets. I watched the sort of movies that framed animals as friends not food. So I learned to empathize with animals and eventually developed for myself a personal taboo of ‘friends are not food’. On the other hand It’s possible that meat lovers don’t share the same sort of experiences or that their brains just work differently from mine. Maybe hunger and social connection are processed differently in different people.

    So I guess we’d have to examine the specific meaning for ‘pet (individual)’ and ‘food’ for different people and different cultures in order to answer your question. That would be an interesting study.

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