Hall of mirrors: the lost art of conversation

Last week I found myself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in AGW and has written a soon-to-be-published book explaining his position. AGW—which I had to look up—is short for anthropogenic global warming, or global warming caused by human activity. That idea is, he contends, “the biggest whopper sold to the public in the history of humankind.”

Now, I’ve read a lot about people like this: they listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Glenn Beck, think the Earth is 6,000 years old, vote against the teaching of evolution in public schools, read the Bible literally, and vote Republican or Libertarian. I could probably pick them out in a crowd. They just have this look, right?

Except that this young man has a lot in common with, well, me. We’re both English majors from small New England colleges. Both former (at least on my part) doctoral students in literature. Both rowers. Both writers (although he’s been published in high-profile publications like The New Yorker, while I’ve been published in the Anglican Theological Review). Both voted for Obama. Both believers in “clean” energy, whatever that is. We most certainly don’t have that look.

He gave me the basics of his argument, the science of which I followed imperfectly, as I follow all scientific arguments. He caught and retained my attention when he said this: science relies on narrative. In other words, scientists tell stories about their research. They articulate their theories and findings in a particular way, a way that relies on their own experiences, influences, and personal quirks. Facts are facts, but facts aren’t self-interpreting. How the facts are articulated is essential to the final shape of the story.

So here’s the question: why do I take one set of scientific conclusions as gospel and reject another set? I’m not qualified to evaluate the merits of most scientific assertions, period. On what grounds do I choose one interpretation over another? I have to conclude that I rely on considerations other than scientific ones, just as many people do who don’t agree that climate change is caused by human activity, or that the earth is heating up at all. I tend to judge those people using criteria that I don’t generally apply to myself, a predictably unscientific state of affairs which may tarnish the burnished glow of my intellectual honesty.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to believe that the effects of global warming are underway. All of the GOP candidates currently vying for Senate seats doubt the evidence supporting global warming and oppose government action to limit warming pollution. It would seem that most of us in the debate about climate change—and environmental concerns in general—are driven at least as much by political ideology as by science.

One of my daily reads is Grist, an e-zine that calls itself “A Beacon in the Smog.” Among the stories I read this week is one entitled “Stupid Goes Viral: The Climate Zombies of the New GOP.” Near the top of the story comes a staccato burst of single-sentence paragraphs that reads: “Meet the Climate Zombies. They’re mindless. Their stupid is contagious. And if they win, humanity loses.” While the tone is ironic, even flip, the message is clear: we need to be afraid of the politicians who refuse to acknowledge human participation in the destruction of the environment.

The tone of the story sounds very much like Glenn Beck’s when he ridiculed Nancy Pelosi’s anxiety about the rhetorical strategies of Tea Partiers:

This is how they are attempting to silence the Tea Partiers—they are just so hateful, they are going to get violent. During the Tea Parties, liberals in the media were trembling with fear and shaking in their boots. And they were right—see how scary they look? Oh, the horror! Parents, cover your children’s eyes. Of course, no actual violence ever actually happened at any of the Tea Party rallies. But that didn’t stop Nancy Pelosi from crying about the possibility….

While Beck’s tone is ironic, even flip, the message is clear: we need to be afraid of the politicians who want to curtail our right to speak out.

Although I’m more willing to listen to one voice than the other, here’s the problem: neither set of comments is intended to be part of an actual conversation. Both are speaking from within a hall of mirrors in which each auditor is imagined to be a mere projection of the speaker, or at most, a member of the speaker’s monolithic tribe. I recently read a great blog about the “epistemic closure” in much current conservative thinking—the tendency to accept evidence only when it reinforces preexisting opinions—and this from someone who works for the libertarian Cato Institute! But I find evidence of epistemic closure on the left as well, frequently manifested by a tone that smirks, “If you don’t agree with me you’re a moron, and I refuse to converse with morons.”

Well, this moron wants some conversation. In reading Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, by David Tracy (very interesting, wretched title, periodically intelligible), I found this meaty sentence: “Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if evidence suggests it.”

Of course, you can only have a conversation when all the participants agree to these rules, and the Glenn Becks of the world seem usually to want to talk only to themselves in their own halls of mirrors. But when those of us with passionate feelings about the fate of all Earth’s residents, human and non-human alike, sound just like the conversation-stompers on the other side, then we become part of the problem, not the solution. As frustrating as it is to follow the rules—especially when your conversation partner has his back turned, his arms crossed, fingers in his ears and singing “lalalalala”—it becomes even more imperative to walk out of our own hall of mirrors willing to engage (again and again and again) in the hard and morally vital work of conversation in the open air.

Living as I do in my own little hall of mirrors in Austin, my conversational muscles are a tad underdeveloped. I may have to start with the AGW denier I mentioned above, the one who otherwise looks pretty much like me. I’ll try not to call him a moron and try to be willing to change my mind, to leave my tribe and go outside, if evidence suggests that it’s necessary. Now that’s scary.

What we’re reading
Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Martin: Jimmy McDonough, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography

This entry was posted in More and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.