To Donald Trump, Re Having Conversations

I am sorry to hear that you are unwell, and hope that you feel better soon.

When a friend or relative dies, or when we or a person close to us becomes ill with something serious, it tends to change our perspective on how we live. Often we realize that we wasted a great deal of time on things with little lasting value, and neglected what’s important.

Sam Harris expressed this idea very clearly during a speech, extracted here:

“People realize… that their attention was bound up in petty concerns, year after year, when life was normal… like watching a bad movie for the fourth time, or bickering with your spouse.”

I had this experience upon the death of my father in 2017; born in 1949, he would be just a few years younger than you were he still alive. I believe that this experience accelerated my realization that I was placing much too much emphasis on point-scoring in politics and ideas, at the expense of listening and building understanding between people with different perspectives. This is now one of my top goals.

Working Together

Free, open and democratic societies work, at least partly, because we the citizens have the ability to share information with each other and coordinate to pursue common goals. Milton Friedman explained something like this phenomenon in his brief talk on the pencil.

No one person on Earth can make a pencil: it requires thousands of individuals, of many different nationalities, religions, and who speak different languages to collaborate to make one. We can do so because we have a system of norms that can operate among people with different worldviews and ways of life: the market.

Of course, we must discuss our differences, often in very strong terms. There can be more than one way to be right, but there are infinitely more ways to be wrong. In perhaps the majority of worthwhile arguments, someone is wrong and they need to lose for us to move forward. Everyone loses, however, when we regard the other as totally irredeemable, and think that we have nothing at all to learn from them.

Disconnection like this, when it happens, is all the more tragic to the extent that we have more in common than we realize: differences of politics, ideology, culture and religion often hide important commonalities. Our differences need to be settled, but the best forum in which to settle them is one of intelligent, open-minded discussion, rather than name-calling, labels and sides.

In particular, I have friends who think that they are on opposite sides of a discussion when they actually advocate for the same policy — they think they disagree because they have different names for the same thing.

Americans are excellent at solving problems, innovating, and settling differences gallantly. But this is much harder to do when we’re being mislead, and sometimes lied to, about what our differences are. Sometimes this is a simple question of effectiveness: a force divided in two and fighting separately will always lose to a united force of equal power. Our challenges are too great for us to see how much we divide ourselves and are being divided, but not do something about it.

We’re Coming apart, and the More We Come apart, the More Vindicated We Feel

I’m sure you will agree that, in order to fix our problems, we need to be smart. That said, the way that we have conversations and access media today is making us less intelligent.

Media, social media especially, thrives on rage, as rage encourages people to keep watching and clicking. Yet, when you’re angry you’re not solving problems properly: philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger calls this a “limbic hijack”—we’re presented with a problem that needs a smart solution, but get mad or scared, and start thinking in terms of tribes rather than individuals, certainty rather than curiosity, and gotchas and point-scoring rather than listening.

As you might expect, this is bad news. Being in your 70s, I’m sure you have learned a great deal and have, multiple times, been wrong in your first impression. The way we have conversations today is getting worse and worse at this sort of error correction: we are continuously encouraged to assume that our side is incapable of being wrong, the other side incapable of being right.

Realizing that we’re wrong and correcting errors is necessary for growth. But we’re making it harder to know when we’re wrong, because we shut out people who disagree and call them monsters.

America is fantastically innovative, due not least to a variety of perspectives, a devotion to science and experimentation, and to debate, all of which is guarded by the First Amendment. The First Amendment, however, doesn’t protect you from being ignored by people who need to hear what you have to say, or from self-censoring out of fear. Ultimately, we should all be ready to sacrifice our own side winning on a particular issue, so as to nurture a system that is adaptable and can correct errors.

You can do more than anyone else to improve this situation. It would help us if you said: “We need to settle our differences, but we need to settle them within a system of decency and good faith, one that prioritizes solutions over allegiance. We need to reach out to and make relationships with people who are different from us.”