Talking past each other

“Free speech, liberty, freedom, human rights — we need more! Also, let’s eat more bologna sandwiches!”

We can probably agree on the first part but perhaps the bologna sandwich draws some protest. In fact, we don’t actually agree on the first part — we are nodding our heads thinking about very different things. Or not thinking about things at all. Either the word triggers substantially different concepts for each person, or, even less usefully, a vague emotion. We are speaking English but our utterings are not equally reliable. For us to agree, we need our minds to be thinking of the same things. Instead, we are mostly talking past each other while we nod our heads in agreement.

We hear the same words, it seems we agree and understand, and yet our minds are dwelling on different objects. This is the underlying mechanism by which communication fails except by accident. Often, we can switch out our words for gibberish and our ability to act or coordinate in the world would not change. The scary part is the language doesn’t feel alien — it seems intelligible at all times.

How can we feel equally sure of our understanding but have different things “in mind”? It seems our mind draws itself towards confirming existing beliefs. “Yes, this is just confirmation bias.” Just. It sounds trite but grasping the magnitude of this overwhelms me. We are constantly interpreting the world, including words coming in, taking actions with our bodies, and making words come out. What is guiding this process? It feels like we are relying on a sense of fit — aesthetics — to bounce between a context-dependent consonance and dissonance. Hearing words, our mind activates relevant belief structures and emotions — a function of past experiences. We then find a way to make everything fit as neatly as possible, quickly resolving dissonance when it rears its head.

“All of us are seeing a different world, interpreting things differently, noticing different things, and are filled with different desires, longings, worries, anxieties, loves, hatreds, and all the rest. We seem to occupy the same world, but really it’s a pluraverse, not a world.” from Larval Subjects

How to make sense of a word like “freedom”? To one person it may trigger memories of fascist tyranny while for another the image of immigrants coming to America. It’s not that either person can’t understand each other’s concepts. And yet, the specific word resonates with quite different ideas for each person’s mind. Similar ones, perhaps, but I propose that the details diverge and become important if one seeks to act upon their beliefs.

“I’m just saying that the two of us can inhabit the same world and nonetheless “see” entirely different things. We can even be talking to each other about these things, thinking that we’re talking about the same things, while we’re nonetheless talking about divergent things. There we were, having this discussion for years, only to wake up one day and realize that we were never talking about the same things and that the sense that we understood each other was all a fantasy or an illusion.” Ibid

To better experience someone else’s view of the pluraverse — to interpret things as they do — one must practice wearing their way of seeing. This is hard, scary, and sometimes painful.

“We think we’re listening, but 99% of the time what we’re really doing is filtering the words of the other through our “interpretive scheme”. “Understanding”, Lacan said, is always filtered through the lens of the imaginary, of that sense that we’re alike and that we’re the same and that we mean the same things. But it’s not like that. The most difficult thing is to hear, to really hear. Nothing is harder, I think, than really hearing the otherness of others… Their universes.” Ibid

Communication doesn’t always completely fail, obviously, because we do manage to coordinate successfully. We can increase our awareness of when we’re talking past each other and deploy strategies to avoid it. Contra “freedom”, we are more likely to approach agreement when discussing “getting lunch”. We promptly converge on what kind of food, where, and at what time. Differences in opinion may or may not be contentious, but they will quickly become salient. The main difference here is operationalization and an intent to act in a coordinated way. As soon as you notice yourself fumbling into abstraction land, seek object-level synchronization. Try to be concrete about how your beliefs are going to result in different actions in the future, how those actions will cause specific outcomes in the world, and how the outcomes will affect your life in a way that you care about. Pay attention to the interactions between parts of the whole: how pieces of a system will connect, or how people will synchronize in time and on actions in the service of common goals. It’s not that speaking about “freedom” is totally hopeless, but by default be prepared to come to a false sense of agreement — to talk past each other.


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