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We Need to Have a Conversation About Having Difficult Conversations

How personal attacks, intolerance, shaming, victimism, language policing and canceling hinder the conversations we need for social change.

Wall in Palestine with Bansky graffiti.
The wall in Palestine with Bansky graffiti. From the Bansky exhibition in Culver City, CA.

Have you noticed how difficult is to have a rational conversation these days?

I am not even talking about conversation between progressives and conservatives. I am talking about conversations between progressives with different opinions, sometimes even minor ones.

And it’s not just politics. The number of difficult topics seems to be ever-expanding: religion, sex differences, gender, sexual orientations, violence on women, trans issues, racism, masculinity, feminism, animal welfare, orgasms, age, diets, pornography, sex work, grammar… These and many other topics have become so fraught with controversy that it has become utterly impossible to discuss them.

I think it’s not the topics themselves, but the way we talk about them. Or, more to the point, we way we have become unable to have polite conversations.

Personal attacks

The most basic premise for a good conversation is politeness and mutual respect. However, they have been discarded because certain ideologies have made it okay to disrespect people that have opinions different from ours. Sometimes, the disrespect is so extreme as to lead to verbal violence and canceling.

For me, the defining line between a polite argument and a personal attack is the ad hominem fallacy. A fallacy is an error in logic, something that turns a rational argument into an irrational one. The ad hominem fallacy consists in rejecting an idea not because of the idea per se, but because of the person expressing it. Therefore, a rational argument should consist of examining the ideas that are being discussed, not the person defending them. If we don’t cross that line, the conversation is less likely to become confrontational because we are attacking ideas, not people.

Furthermore, if we do that, it becomes easier to convince somebody of our ideas, because we are not encouraging the other persons to identify themselves with those ideas.

Identity politics and silencing

Identity politics has made the ad hominem fallacy systematic by discarding the voice of entire groups of people. The argument goes like this: “You belong to an oppressor group [white, man, rich, American, etc.], therefore, everything you say is to defend your privilege, so it is automatically false.”

This is wrong for several reasons.

  • First, it is fallacious: an idea is not right or wrong because of who expresses it.

  • Second, judging people from the group to which they belong erases their humanity, their singular characteristics as individuals.

  • Third, this is self-defeating, because to enact social change we need people from powerful groups to change their behavior, and even to side with us to become allies. We are not going to achieve that if we don’t let them speak.

A conversation means everybody gets their say. Otherwise, it’s not a conversation but a lecture. And nobody likes to be lectured.

Mislabeling disagreement

One subtle form of personal attack is to deny the ability of other people to disagree with you by labeling that disagreement as something else: confusion, ignorance or lack of education.

This is a put-down, because you imply that the other person is your intellectual inferior, or is not sufficiently prepared to debate you.

I first faced this problem as a teenager, while being brainwashed… err… educated, by the Catholic organization Opus Dei. Every time I came up with doubts about religious beliefs, they looked at me condescendingly and said that I was confused. That I was too young and uneducated to understand such complicated topics.

But it’s not just religious people who do this. Even people who claim to be rational accuse others of being ‘confused’ when they don’t agree with them.

Yes, people will often misunderstand what you mean. The polite thing to do in those cases is to say that you have not expressed yourself well enough, and then try to formulate your ideas in a different way.

We have also turned ‘education’ into a dirty word by saying ‘you need to educate yourself’ - meaning ‘you haven’t been adequately brainwashed by my ideology.’ Using the word ‘education’ this way reminds of the re-education camps in which totalitarian regimes inter their dissidents.

It is true that often people discuss subjects about which they know nothing. They don’t even realize the extent of their ignorance - the Dunning-Kruger effect. Responding to this with an appeal to authority - ‘trust me, I’m a neuroscientist’ - is still condescending, and a logical fallacy to boot. I try to take the high road by using my expertise to explain the problem as simply as I can. If you are truly honest and empathetic, they will either end up thanking you for educating them, or break through Dunning-Kruger to realize how much they don’t know about that stuff.

Tolerance and its limits

Political correctness does something that is an odd inversion of the ad hominem fallacy: it blames people for having certain opinions. This increases confrontation and sets the basis for shunning and canceling.

To a certain extent, making people responsible for their ideas makes sense. Certain ideas represent a moral failure that defines that person. If you think that certain races are more intelligent than others, you are a racist. If you think that women should submit to men, you are a misogynist. If you think that the Holocaust did not happen, you are a Nazi. If you think that dictatorship is a good form or government, you are a fascist.

I struggled with this all my life. According to the last definition, my father was a fascist: he thought that the Franco dictatorship in Spain was okay and held positions of power in the government of Franco. Later on, he became a democrat and was elected to Congress. I never stopped loving him and admiring the many valuable things he did.

Even people with despicable ideas deserve respect. Sometimes our love.

It’s called tolerance. We need to respect the humanity of everybody, even those with awful ideologies.

We certainly should condemn people who do evil things, or who collaborate with those who do them. It is also true that evil ideas lead to evil deeds. However, unethical ideas should be fought with good arguments, not by persecuting the people who espouse them. Censorship is a tool of dictatorships.

Free inquiry and intellectual honesty

Another good reason to tolerate all kinds of ideas is that science and rational discourse require free inquiry. If certain ideas are off limits, how would we know that they are wrong?

This is a can of worms that certain conservatives like to open by asking questions like “what if some races are really more intelligent than others?” But, in fact, the starting point in Western civilization was the racist belief that some races were superior to others. It was science what proved that wrong.

Science is not amoral; it is based on some solid values:

  • The quest for truth as one of our most worthwhile endeavors.

  • The interrogation of Nature using a rigorous scientific method.

  • Discarding an idea when it is proven wrong.

  • Abiding by evidence and facts.

These values define intellectual honesty: a wholehearted dedication to the truth.

Here is where science and political correctness collide. Political correctness discards some ideas beforehand - it is dogmatic. Science will inquire into everything without prejudice, and abide by the truth, whatever it is.

When we choose to disregard the truth in the name of political expedience, we open the door to irrational beliefs that eventually lead to oppression.

Shaming and blaming

Shame and guilt are two of the most powerful social emotions: the feelings that guide our behavior is society to encourage cooperation. They are driven by signals from others and have a profound impact on our self-esteem. They are so powerful that can drive people to suicide.

The 20th century saw the slow realization that shame and guilt could be used for social change. If the rich and powerful could be made ashamed of supporting oppression and inequality, then they could be forced to eliminate them. And it worked. Demonstrations, talks, writing, organizing and voting became effective political tools to promote the rights of the exploited.

But it went too far. These powerful psychological weapons were turned to other progressives to enforce political correctness and ideology.

Even worse, they were used on people because they belonged to a particular group (men, whites, etc.), not because of their actions.

The oppressor/victim dynamic

The narrative about victims fighting oppressors was started by Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century. The exploited were the workers, and the oppressors were owners of the factories and lands where they worked.

This struggle reflected well the situation at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. However, as Western societies became more developed, the working class became less well-defined. Thanks to powerful unions, many workers became members of a burgeoning middle class, where they joined professionals like college professors, engineers and lawyers. On the other side of the social spectrum, the unemployed were excluded from the political discourse.

Then the narrative shifted from class struggle to identity politics. The oppressors were no longer the rich and the capitalists, but groups that were perceived as having more power than other groups. Thus, men were oppressors and women victims. Blacks were victimized by whites. Gays were the victims of straights. And so on and so forth.

Never mind that what really oppressed these victims were not people - men, whites, straights, etc. - but societal structures - misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc. People are not immoral because they belong to a group that they haven’t chosen, but inasmuch as they accept and support the structures of oppression. But this inconvenient detail gets in the way of spreading ideology. It’s easier to preach hatred towards the out-group. After all, tribalism is in our genes.

Ideologies hate nuance. It creates too much doubt. And the people who want to ride ideologies to power are not precisely characterized by their intelligence. So they welcome any tool that helps stifle dissent and rational discourse.

The best of such strategies is what I call appeal to victimhood. Whenever anybody brings up an argument that challenges the ideology, it is instantly labeled as an act of oppression: blaming the victim, re-enacting the rape, supporting the Patriarchy, homophobia, defending the sexual binary.

Since Postmodernism declared the centrality of language, ideas became acts of oppression indistinguishable from behavior.

Policing language

The next turn of the screw consisted of placing landmines all over language.

Now you could be labeled as an oppressor, not just by defending the wrong idea, but just by using the wrong word. And that keeps changing constantly, so those who are not in the known - the out group - are constantly blamed for oppression.

So ‘Indian’ became ‘Native American’, that was in turn discarded in favor of ‘indigenous people’. ‘Autistic’ is wrong, it’s ‘person with autism’! Don’t say ‘crazy’, it’s ‘neurodivergent’! It’s not ‘transsexual’, is ‘transgender’… no, wait, just say ‘trans’… but don’t you ever say ‘tranny’!

And so every conversation we try to have quickly degenerates into an argument over the right words to use.

And if you express the wrong idea or use the wrong word, it’s an unforgivable offense because it hurts the delicate feelings of the countless victims around you.

In a society ruled by identity politics, we are divided into many groups of victims and oppressors.

You have to quickly signal to what victim group you belong to, otherwise you will be thrown into an oppressor group, shamed and marginalized. For example, I am an immigrant, a Hispanic and an atheist. That should save me from being classified as an old white man, the worse possible oppressor group.

Triggers and emotional blocks

One way the appeal to victimhood is used as a conversation stopper is the emotional trigger. It is based on the idea that certain topics cannot be touched because bringing them up would produce great psychological distress to a person by triggering flashbacks of the abuse.

This is not to deny that flashbacks do exist. I have seen them happen. By they have been weaponized as conversation stoppers. Especially when the goal of the conversation is to point out behavioral problems or moral shortcomings of the victim.

Another way the appeal to emotional fragility is used is when, in the middle of a discussion that is not going too well for them, they declare that they cannot deal with it anymore because it is causing them emotional distress.

Other times, people surround themselves with a host of taboo subjects that protect them from being called on their behavior. Or are used to protect their ideology from being attacked.

This is not new. Christian, Islamists and other religious people quickly label any rational argument against their religion as an offense against their beliefs. Not long ago, and even today in some countries, they made you pay for your offense with your life.

Shunning and blocking

The penalty for expressing the wrong ideas, using the wrong words or triggering the fragile emotions of a victim is shunning. A group of people would refuse to talk to you. In our computerized world, you would be blocked from social media or even ghosted.

I am not against blocking on social media or platforms like Medium. If somebody insults me or engages in a personal attack, I will block them. However, I will not block somebody simply because they disagree with me or use the wrong words.


When shunning is done on a large scale to somebody whose livelihood depends on their public image, it becomes canceling. It has become a truly horrific practice that has destroyed many lives.

One of the most egregious examples is the canceling of the documentary Jihad Rehab, by Meg Smaker, from the Sundance Festival and other venues, driven by Islamic extremists.

The threat of cancelation eliminates rational, nuanced conversations, ensuring the survival of idiotic ideas that would be quickly discarded otherwise.

Censorship used to be something that conservatives did because their arguments were not strong enough to counter those of the Left. However, these days we see a new form of censorship arising from canceling culture.

Ideological bubbles

The problem with shunning is that it’s reciprocal. People who are being shunned or canceled get together to support each other and, in turn, shun the group that has marginalized them. Then it becomes a numbers game: which group is the larger and hence more powerful?

This dynamic creates a society of ghettos separated by ideological walls, who cannot talk to each other because of their intolerance. They are ideological bubbles.

People inside each bubble live happily, content to be surrounded by people who don’t challenge their ideas, trigger their emotions or use the wrong words. If the ideas or politically correct words of the group change, as they often do, they quickly fall in line.

The problem comes when it’s time for political action. When you need votes, money, followers, or bodies for a demonstration. Then you realize that your bubble is inconveniently small. You try to fundraise, get followers, get out the vote, but people seem oblivious to your cause. Ideas that seem so obvious to you - because nobody inside your bubble dares to challenge them - leave others unimpressed.

Without being polished by vigorous debate, ideas become flat and lose their power. If you are not open to the opinions of others, you will never convince anybody. If you do not challenge them, your ideas cannot evolve to become something that most people would embrace. If you choose to remain emotionally fragile, you will not be ready to fight for social change.

How your ego hides behind your opinions

I would like to leave you with a reflection about the roots of our inability to engage in deep, meaningful conversations.

It’s our ego.

That conviction that we have the right ideas to save the world. Our self-assurance in our many reads and extensive education. Or, conversely, the belief that we are damaged victims who need to be protected from the wrong arguments and words. It’s all ego.

It’s the ego trying to protect itself, to put up its defenses against shame and guilt. To convince others that we are okay. Please, praise me. Please, do not shun me.

You are a fool if you think that you are going to save the world. Nobody is that powerful.

The only thing that we can do, that we should do, is to contribute to the collective effort of Humanity to improve our lot and make our planet a better place. But, to do that, we need to work together. And we can only do that by communicating. By talking, but also listening. By having conversations. Particularly on the most difficult topics, because they are where change is most needed.

We need to leave our egos behind and open up to others.

That’s why, when ideologies get in the way of our conversations, we are doing it all wrong.

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