The Socratic Method and Conversational Violence

In “A Guide for Talking to Trump Supporters,” beloved Vimmer Zach says that using the Socratic Method is a particularly useful strategy for engaging Trump supporters. The idea is that through critical questioning, we can bring Trump supporters to realize flaws in their reasons for supporting Trump. Sometimes, however, as these conversations practically play out, people get frustrated. Socrates’ own interlocutors, such as Euthyphro, are fine examples. To be sure, using the Socratic method often leads to confusion and cognitive dissonance, especially when the method is effective. This is why Socrates was not well liked by his peers and in the Apology we learn that they ultimately put him to death. More insight uncovers that the Socratic Method also involves deception. Socrates deceives his interlocutors into believing that he knows less than he does about the topics they discuss. Also, and equally important, Socrates’ interlocutors often come short of changing their mind’s at the conclusion of a dialogue; what results instead is a state of aporia or puzzlement. So, if our aim is to change the mind of Trump supporters, we have to be careful when we use this method to engage with them. Changing beliefs, or changing one’s orientation to what Vimmers call ‘a Socratic Spirit’ or philosophical attitude, is a difficult process that renders a lot of people vulnerable and can require a certain sensitivity and tenderness.

In addition, Socratic dialogue can be exhausting. Our interlocutors sometimes come to a point in the conversation where they do not wish to carry on the dialogue. They say things like, “Look, I am not going to continue this conversation with you”; or “I already see where this conversation is going, and we will disagree, so we might as well stop talking about it now”; or “This conversation is exhausting, and I do not wish to carry on any further.” In short, exhaustion can make it difficult for our conversations to remain fruitful and productive.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the Socratic method can be frustrating is that the method’s perceived effectiveness sometimes is found in its failing to garner consent for its use. We don’t often say “Hey, let me use this Socratic Method on you real quick” (as romantic as that might sound). Perhaps we should (although it may deter many citizens as willful participants). Still this consideration is important because, as Zach mentions in the Vimcast episode 4, the method works by way of “sneaking in rational discourse.” The presentation of our interlocutor’s frustration might remind us of the guide’s suggestion to “Be calm” and try to stick with our application of the methodto continue questioning the Trump supporter.

I sympathize with my fellow Vimmer’s Socratic vigor. Still, if we are going to be good Socratics in our application of the method, we have to be aware of and acknowledge points in conversation where people may grow confused or frustrated or exhausted in order to avoid what we might call conversational violencespeech acts that, whether intentional or not, restrict a person’s conversational rights and interests. We deploy speech acts all the timefor example when we talk to one another, ask questions and tell jokes. Some of our speech acts harm the people we are talking to by failing to respect their wishes, particularly where these wishes are for the current conversation to cease. Admittedly, my usage of violence in conversational contexts aims to call attention to an underappreciated phenomenon—a certain kind of harmful conversational behavior. Conversational violence is dangerous and should be avoided because it has the potential to affect our interlocutor’s integrity by reducing their chances of positive self-representation (i.e. when we dominate a conversation, allowing our fellow conversant only few chances to speak) and their power to influence the direction of the conversation.

Because there is a tendency towards associating violence with physical force, to think of conversational violence might seem odd. But we often casually talk about things like “a heated conversation.” As we know, we can hurt others when we argue with them. We might also harm other conversants over the course of engaging in a conversation. We can ignore the fact that someone has the right to contribute to the conversation (by interrupting them) or we can control the topics discussed in a conversationexcluding them from influencing the particular dialogue at hand. We can attack weak points in a Trump supporter’s arguments and maneuver ourselves into a better argumentative position. We shut down people’s arguments when we are trying to avoid “losing.” In many ways, our words, like sticks and stones, are weapons—weapons that can cause harm in our conversations with people.

Political dialogue is of particular worry as linguist Martin Luginbühl finds conversational violence to be a source of entertainment in television political debates like this one and this one. In each clip we see the positions presented in a fragmented way, making it difficult for the audience to understand. The argumentative content becomes secondary, the fight primary. These shows demonstrate how easily political dialogues can become violent.

Political conversations among pundits and politicians are not radically unlike our casual conversations. Sometimes we mask offensive rhetorical strategies in the form of asking questions. In this case, our cooperative behavior is inauthentic at best. For example, sometimes we listen to respond rather than listen to understandwe say things like “Well, what do you think?” in an attempt to perhaps ridicule them for their views later in the conversation. The discussion becomes a conversation contest, ripe for winning and losing, zero sum. A game where, if one wants to be successful, one has to stage the conversation in a way that they can win without seeming unfair.

If our conversations with Trump supporters are going to be fruitful, it may not matter who attacked first or whether harm was intended. What matters is whether conversational rightsa duty of cooperative conversation to respect the territory of others, that is, the conversational possibilities each participant has to their disposalrestricted or not. As good Socratics, we have to be particularly tender when applying this method because whether a conversation takes on this character depends on the development of the topics discussed and how they are developed. Once our conversations take on this competitive characterwhere one or more parties become defensiveit becomes difficult for them to remain fruitful or productive. Perhaps, toward this end, it will be useful to set the terrain by explicitly acknowledging the conversational rights and obligations and the ways these rights are constrained by acts of conversational violence.

To be conversationally violent is to act in a way that restricts the conversational rights of people we are talking to. I encourage us to understand that those who perpetually commit acts of conversational violence do not necessarily have to be viewed as evil peopleand in most cases they aren’t. Acts of conversational violence can occur independent of a person’s intentions. Sometimes we use the word violence in contexts that do not implicate an intentional agent as an actor (i.e. “that was a violent storm”). We also do not implicate an intentional agent as an actor when we say that structures or systems are violent. In this case, violence usually indexes an unequal distribution of chances or power. The usage of violence in these contexts suggest that it can be adapted, understood, and appropriately applied in contexts where there is not an intention to be violent. Utterances that have the consequences of restricting one’s conversational rights but are authorized and legitimized by rights associated with a conversational role are instances of structural conversational violence. One example is when talk show hosts interrupt their guests. Admittedly, more focus on these kinds of interruptions reveal that it is not always clear what should be said about the intention of the host as a perpetrator of conversational violence. For example, if the talk show host’s interruption is an exercise of institutional rights, say because the show is about to cut to a commercial break, I think that we should understand the act as one of structural violence and it is unclear what the intention of the host is. The host may or may not be intending to restrict the conversational rights of their guest (i.e. “I am intending to restrict the rights of my guest” versus “I am intending to do my job effectively”). If a host, on the other hand, is interrupting because they do not agree with the position of the guest, it would appear that the claim should be one of personal conversational violence because this kind of interruption is not a part of the host’s privileges as the host. In the former case, the host would be acting violently in conversation and may not have intentions that should be condemned.

Before closing, I should say that I am aware that my adaptation of the word violence to a conversational context is for a certain purpose: to call attention to and try to avoid the harmful consequences that our conversational strategies can have. Ideally, introducing the terminology of conversational violence into our political discourse would have the effect of generating reflection on one’s own conversational strategies. For example, someone who is an asshole—someone who doesn’t really listen to other people, cuts people off in conversation, and controls the direction of the conversation by dominating it—would be called ‘violent’ by someone; then after hearing such a strong word, they might think, “Wow, I guess I was actually doing something harmful and should change the way that I talk to people.” However, there is also a potential for negative effects too. If we call people conversationally violent, many people might think that we are merely being dramatic. In this case, calling people conversationally violent might have the opposite effect: it may turn people off rather than getting them to think about their behavior in conversation.

Still ‘conversational violence’ is an important concern for us to be familiar with and also a term that we should be careful of how we use it in conversation. We should think about who our interlocutor is and how such a charge might be perceived by them. If we think that calling our interlocutor conversationally violent would help to get them to realize their problem, then we should use it; if we think that we would be perceived as being dramatic or over-the-top, perhaps we should think about another way to communicate the harms being conducted, such as calling to mind how frequently one is being interrupted or constrained by saying something like, “Hey, you’re interrupting me a lot and this isn’t making for good conversation.” This is a reminder that persuasive tactics in conversation can be carried out in ways that respect and even protect the conversational rights of others.Blue

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