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Conversation is a lost art form, but voters can restart the game

By BOB MARTIN

Contributing Columnist

Diplomacy relies on conversation to resolve conflicts. Hence, conversations are very valuable. On the other hand, debate is not part of diplomacy. No diplomat puts warring parties in a room and asks them to debate their differences. Therefore, conversation is more important than debate when it comes to conflict resolution. Unfortunately, conversation is in danger of becoming a lost art form.

Conversation is a sequential game of give and take and game theory suggests the optimal strategy is “tit-for-tat,” which means if your opponent cooperates, you cooperate and if your opponent does not cooperate, you do not cooperate. Noncooperation accelerates the conflict and cooperation reduces conflict. Conflict is unlikely to be reduced if only one side is willing to cooperate. You must have partners in peace. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why our national political conversation has degenerated into a screaming, desk-pounding family feud.

Cooperation means bringing rational arguments and data to the conversation. Call that a Type 1 response. Noncooperation is attacking other people’s character, questioning their motives and/or name calling. Call this a Type 2 response. It is clear Type 2 responses end conversations and they lead to arguments. Conversation dies when either party resorts to Type 2 responses.     

Conversation is not shouting and it is not talking over other people. Shouting and talking over others are aggressive acts of disrespect. They are abusive tactics designed to rattle other people. They are Type 2 responses for domination, not communication.    

The first requirement for constructive conversation is each party considers it a learning experience: they expect to learn why other people hold the views they do. They do not expect to surrender their own views. The conversation should end with an agreement to disagree about the issues that are not resolved.

The second requirement is assuming all perspectives are honestly derived from each person’s education, experience and cognitive processing. Opinions must be respected, although they can be properly identified as opinions and not facts. Conversation is not “war by another means,” where one deploys any and all tactics necessary to crush the opponent.

The third requirement is emotional arguments are to be avoided. An argument derived from emotion can only be countered by personal responses from those who disagree; it cannot be countered by rational argument. This lifts the conversation off the rational plane and onto an emotional plane. That will defeat the purpose of conversation.    

Overall, conversation is a calm, careful examination of ideas brought to the table. If we are not prepared to discuss ideas, rather than dogma, we should not take a seat at the table. Diplomats cannot make peace unless all parties want peace.

Habitual Type 2 responders are hiding a weak case. After all, if the case is strong, they have nothing to fear from skeptics. The more one persists in demonizing others, the weaker their case.

As voters, we are referees in the political process. We can call a ‘foul’ in the political process by the way we vote. If you want more attacks on motives, character or personality, vote for those who trade in that currency. If you are sick of that tactic, vote the Type 2 responders out of office. That will restart the ‘tit for tat’ game at cooperation.     

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.