Why we talk past one another

By Vic Rosenthal

Yesterday I described some of my experiences at one of our community’s recurrent anti-Israel events. It got me thinking about the reasons that we seem to divide into groups according to political criteria, groups that talk past one another.

I mentioned that I went to an event sponsored by the local “Center for Nonviolence.” I would very much like to explain to them why I think that the policies they advocate, these basically honest people who would like to improve the world, would result in more violence, not less. But conversations like this are almost impossible. Why is this?

When I think back to my days as a philosophy student, one of the philosophers who made the most sense to me was Kant. Kant took very seriously the arguments of Hume and others that the ideas of space, time, causality, etc. — things that allow us to organize and understand our experience —  could not be found in our experience itself. But if this is so, how can we know that our systems of knowledge, including science, are reliable?

Kant’s answer (very oversimplified!) is that these “modes of perception” — space and time — and “categories of the understanding” — including causality — are built into humans, who then impose them on their otherwise chaotic perception of outside reality.

Something like this happens at a higher level, the level at which we assign political significance to events. So a person makes otherwise chaotic human behavior understandable by applying a priori categories and principles to it.

The classical Marxist, for example, uses the class struggle as a unifying principle. It enables him to understand and predict, he thinks, the behavior of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Today much of the Left holds a postcolonialist worldview, in which the behavior of nations and politicians is explained by relationships of colonial exploitation, present and future.

Such conceptual schemes have their utility, but they do not necessarily serve the truth, and can even invert reality when applied inappropriately. My readers are probably tired of hearing me talk ad nauseum about how  postcolonial theory inverts reality when applied to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The first reason that I have trouble talking to the people from the Center for Nonviolence (much as I would like to see a reduction of violence in the world) is that we apply different explanatory principles to the same events.

This is bad enough, but there’s more. When we read history and today’s news, we not only organize our experience according to a conceptual scheme, we fill in gaps. Things like the motivations of political actors are not always transparent, but they are of great importance in allowing us to predict their future behavior (and isn’t that what knowledge is all about?). So when we process information, we not only organize it, we add to it.

What comes out of this is a historical narrative. And narratives about the same events can diverge to the point of being complete opposites. The obvious example of this is the difference between the so-called Israeli and Arab narratives of the events of 1948, in which a real event — the displacement of some Arabs from what is now Israel — is interpreted in entirely different ways by emphasizing some facts and deemphasizing, even ignoring, others, by imputing motivations to the actors, and more.

Should we include the parallel displacement of Jews from the Arab world in our understanding? What were the motivations of the Arabs that fled? What did the Zionist leadership intend? What did the Arab leaders want? Which accounts are reliable and which not? The answers to these questions determine a historical narrative.

So we have different conceptual schemes and different historical narratives. And even that isn’t all: we live in parallel but different media universes. We visit different websites, watch different TV networks, read different newspapers and magazines, listen to different radio stations. Naturally, we choose the universe that best fits our conception of the way things are.

These three reasons are at least part of the explanation for the failures of communication between, for example, a Zionist like me and a member of the Center for Nonviolence.

Keep in mind that these differences do not imply that “everyone is equally right” or something similar. Kant thought that despite the fact that humans imposed categories on empirical reality, there was an empirical reality. Propositions can be true or false in a way which may not be entirely objective, but is nevertheless universal. Things are more complicated than they may look, but truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are meaningful concepts.

I’ve found that entering the media universe of my political opponents gives me a certain amount of power. I recommend it. But one needs to understand their conceptual schemes as well in order to communicate.

Unfortunately, only a few people have the patience to listen to the other side long enough to understand them.

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2 Responses to “Why we talk past one another”

  1. NormanF says:

    The post-modern Left’s metaphysical framework is deconstructionism or moral relativism. Our points of views are valid only for us and not for others and then only for a certain period of time.

    There is no universal right and wrong. And who we to judge others? Of course an exception is made for Israel. But what is striking is the world is seemingly unable to condemn Assad, let alone to stop his mass murder of his own people.

    Then again, who is to say he is not right to do it? This is where our current worldview has taken us, to dismissing genocide as a cultural issue to difficult to resolve rather than as a universal moral question that must be confronted.

    In a word, ideas have consequences and we’re seeing them played out in day to day life.

  2. juvanya says:

    Good points here. I find a lot of arguments are like two people shouting past each other. Or from opposite sides of a cliff. Or kepéla. (from The Interpreter)