Barriers to Conversation: Certainty

When I talk politics with friends and family members who disagree with me, I just want to change their minds. My ideal conversation would go something like this: after they describe their point of view, I articulate my opinion, leading them down a road of epiphanies that ends with them relating to the world in a whole new way and singing songs of my genius that will be passed down for generations.

Somehow, the songs remain unsung.

I’ve recently noticed that one way that I try to persuade people is by projecting a sense of certainty. My assumption has been that if I seem to be sure of myself, others will think that I have something to be sure of. If I can bluff my way into and through graduate school, after all, I can probably convince my relatives that I know something about politics. And you know what? The funny thing is that it works, in a way. My interlocutors recognize that I have strong opinions, supported with evidence and careful thought.

But that kind of certainty totally turns them off of the conversation. For them, my certainty reads as a kind of smugness. After all, they want to convince me that I’m wrong just as much as I want to convince them. And who wants to be pushing against an immovable object? I’ve begun to believe that certainty is a conversation killer.

It’s hard to avoid expressions of absolute certainty around some of the most important topics of conversation. Many hotly-debated issues seem so clear cut as to be mundane. All people deserve respect and equal protection under the law. Humanity’s contribution to climate change is real. Racial colorblindness is not. Duh.

But not everything is so clear-cut. As much as I cringe when I read student papers’ blanket assertions about the past, I’m comfortable concluding that history is chock full of well-informed, well-intentioned people who drew the wrong lessons from the past and who failed to predict the consequences of their actions. It’s full of people who saw themselves as heroes but ended up being villains. History might not offer very many tidy lessons, but one of the few is surely that in the long run, we’re all idiots.

If I work backwards from the assumption that I’m a historical idiot (that is, an idiot operating within the confines of history—as distinct from a historic idiot, which is also sometimes true but usually only in the context of my marriage) I feel more comfortable expressing uncertainty about some political issues. For example, gun control seems like a good idea, but would homicide drop significantly if all guns were outlawed tomorrow? I genuinely don’t know. I’m in favor of paid family leave, but would that just lead to more hiring discrimination against women? Maybe. I support extensive criminal justice reform, but I also have to admit that assessing guilt and innocence is an incredibly tricky business. Almost any measure related to the economy seems fraught with unintended consequences that are nearly impossible for me, or anyone really, to predict.

In the future, I’m looking forward to engaging with my conservative friends and family from a position of uncertainty. If there’s anything I share with my conservative interlocutors, it’s that we pretend to be more sure of ourselves than we have any right to be. My hope is that modeling this kind of vulnerability will provide them space to think about and own up to their own blind spots in knowledge and experience. In an era of combative partisanship, the process of locating and recognizing those blind spots might be a useful step toward the recognition that alternative ways of experiencing the world are worthy of consideration.

Will this plan work? I’m not sure. Will I try? Certainly.