Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | A Chinese bridge to engage ideologues and the rigid

It’s still possible to have a dialogue with those unwilling to see logic when it comes to certain beliefs

A day after the Lok Sabha election results were announced, I wrote in this newspaper that many Indian public intellectuals who occupied the so-called “liberal" space were, in fact, illiberal. Arguing that the return of Narendra Modi was not the end of democracy, as they were predicting, I mentioned that the 2014-19 Modi government had not banned a single book. A very old friend of mine posted on Facebook that my claim was false, listed seven books, and said it was “hard to trust a column that uses facts so loosely".

She was someone I am very fond of, so I did not want to publicly say that she was wrong. I wrote to her personally, pointing out that of the seven books, three were never banned and were available for purchase. One case was from the Manmohan Singh era, when a minister sued and the publisher withdrew the book. In two cases, the books were banned by courts, not by any government, and only one of them happened when Modi was in power. And, in the seventh case, the publisher refused to print the book after the author praised Modi! My mail was a simple fact check.

Within hours, I got a 709-word reply that started with “You know exactly how specious this is". Her mail did not address any of my facts, except arguing that Hindutva groups had agitated for banning two of the books (but neither was banned). She ended by hoping that I was “happy with the choices (I had) made". I was deeply hurt by her mail and also shocked by what I saw as rejection of logic by a highly intelligent person when it came to certain beliefs. Was it possible any more, I wondered, to have reasonable dialogues in this polarized world?

So I bought How To Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, two people I admire for their scientific temper (you may want to Google “Boghossian grievance"). The authors present practical techniques to have successful conversations—from the fundamentals to expert-level techniques for dealing with hard-liners and extremists. It’s all backed by deep research, from neuroscience to effective hostage negotiation.

“Impossible conversations" are conversations that feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics or world views. A must for such conversations to be successful, the authors say, is building a Golden Bridge, a concept thought up by legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. No one likes to admit that they were holding a mistaken belief. They feel humiliated, they think people will see them as stupid. But holding a false belief does not make a person stupid. It merely makes that belief incorrect. That’s a key difference, and it’s very important to make sure that people understand this and feel reassured that they have not lost face.

And producing facts to contradict a belief doesn’t work. Most people believe they have the evidence to support what they think is true because almost everyone forms beliefs first and then looks for facts to confirm them. So, countering them with facts almost never makes anyone change their minds (as I learnt from personal experience).

As far as politics goes, because of a polarized media, the other person will always know more about the extremists on your side than the moderate expressions of belief. So, start by acknowledging and disavowing the extremists. Never defend indefensible behaviour. This can be a basis of trust, from which a deeper conversation can emerge and a better chance of persuasion.

Is it at all possible to engage the closed-minded and the ideologues? Yes, say Boghossian and Lindsay, but only if they are below eight on a 10-point belief scale. You will need to let the other vent. Try altercasting—ask them what they would do if they were in someone else’s shoes and had to solve a certain problem. Gently take them to the limits—posit them situations where they couldn’t possibly act according to their beliefs. And, always have the Golden Bridge ready.

Ideologues’ beliefs are deeply connected to their moral values and sense of identity. So, it’s essential to quickly affirm their identity as good, moral people. Then move to the values underlying their beliefs, thus denying them access to well-rehearsed defences, like “It’s in my holy books, so it’s true". Invite a deeper conversation into those values—Boghossian, who has conducted thousands of conversations with prison inmates and religious hardliners, found that few people have deeply considered the meanings and implications of moral terms like justice, fairness or truth. Our belief-lives are trapped by feelings, culture, psychology, access to information and circumstances (including social and economic class). Almost everyone has a brittle moral epistemology; it’s possible to induce doubt. But expect trouble and keep an eye on the exit.

So, will I apply these methods? Will I even try to have “impossible conversations"? Do I have the inclination or the energy? I don’t know, though I suppose that I should, we all should. However, what I do know is that there are many people who strongly disagree with me on many issues, but I consider myself their friend. And it’s all right if they don’t believe that.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines