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The Three Languages of Politics Kindle Edition
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Arnold Kling has a hypothesis, which he calls the 'Three-axis Model'. In his model, we each have a way we tend to think and communicate about issues. These ways have polarized along three different axes (I'll get to them in a moment). Just as right handed people use their right hand without thinking, we tend to think and communicate at our comfortable point in the spectrum of each axis. This serves to quickly validate our existing views, allow us to discard discordant information and reinforces us within our tribe of similar believers. Unfortunately, just as using the wrong hand is awkward and obviously wrong, these ways are so different from how people polarized on other axes think that it marks us for dismissal by their tribes, even as it reinforces them in their own.
The challenge then is, how do we step back from these dominant ways to thinking to see the world through the eyes of others and communicate with them on terms they would understand and recognize, rather than dismiss? How do you have a discussion that informs, rather than one that simply reinforces the existing polarization? Arnold Kling here outlines the beginnings of an answer.
To get to his answer, he starts by hypothesizing three polarized axes of thought:
oppressor/oppressed [naturally preferred by progressives]
civilization/barbarism [naturally preferred by conservatives]
freedom/coercion [naturally preferred by libertarians]
Few of us are so one dimensional as to be entirely along one axis, but generally there is an axis we tend to automatically turn to without thinking. If we actually think, it can be different, but as Daniel Kahneman persuasively argues in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we do this far less often than we realize.
Even when presented with an issue about which we would all agree, the three different axes still produce discord. The holocaust, for example. Seen along the oppressor/oppressed axis it becomes a prime example of the evils of allowing anti-semitism. That is, the deliberate creation of an oppressed group. Along the civilization/barbarism axis, it is a prime example of moral values collapsing when a nation's institutions are subverted. For freedom/coercion, it becomes an example of what goes wrong with unchecked state power. Despite agreeing on the evil, each solution is at cross purposes to the other and marks you for dismissal by those operating instinctively along a different axis.
Arnold Kling does not ask anyone to change their views, but he does challenge his readers to develop the capacity to think along the other axes, not in the caricatured ways permitted of the other axes by your own, but in ways that would be recognized as valid by those operating on that axis (Bryan Caplan's 'Ideological Turing Test'). If nothing else, it will improve our ability to understand those coming from a different perspective, to communicate effectively with them and gain some skepticism for views that would otherwise reassuringly resonate with your own. Well practiced, this would momentarily trump instinctive thinking and briefly allow deliberate thought processes to be engaged.
We may not change any minds, including our own, but we will weaken the disconcerting tribal barriers emerging in the modern political debate, reduce the level of polarization across the axes of thought and more easily recognize when the opposites in our discussion are being well meaning and reasonable, albeit with a different perspective.
If, like me, you fear that our institutions will be gravely challenged in the coming years, are concerned about the erosion of our freedoms and worry about the impact this will have on the weakest among us (see how I tried to use language from all three axes!), then you owe it to yourself to practice the capacity to engage in a way that speaks to all of the participants in the debate.
All this for less than an hour of my time and cheaper than a gourmet cup of coffee.
Well written. Pleasantly succinct. Awards to the author!
That said, I do wish that Kling had spent a little more time discussing applications of the three axes to specific political issues -- including ones that don't seem to fit the mold (though I think most do). Also, some of the examples he does use aren't as "clean" as they could be, and as a result they may undersell his model. For instance, Kling uses the mortgage finance crisis as a leading example. But because Kling is an expert on the subject, he goes into greater depth and complexity on the issue than needed, when the power of his three-axes model is really in explaining the broad outlines of ideological positions rather than the nuances. The resulting analysis is somewhat messy.
Nevertheless, Kling's model is useful and (usually) accurate, and it could prove the basis for a whole research program in political science. On those grounds alone, it gets a thumbs-up.
The strong point of this book is in trying to put the reader into his or her ideological opponents' shoes. He brings up the ideological turing test (created by Bryan Caplan) which asks: if you were put in a room with your ideological others, could you pass as one of them? Psychology finds that, on average, liberals think they can make better conservatives than conservatives, and vice versa. Neither is right.
Now on to the parts of the book I disagreed with. Kling compares the diverging languages to an 'audible' in football: a purposeful confusion of signs to make sure the opposition doesn't know what is going on. This seems farfetched to me. Diverging language among groups that are so large, tends to be an unintentional process that indicates that there are few contacts between groups. Polite society has politics as one of its taboos, and people tend to view media outlets that they agree with in the first place; this means that the network of people actually using political language in conversation is very fractured, just what you would expect from people with little real contact (and strong enforcement within each social group).
His portrayal of the explanations for the financial crisis seemed a little problematic. The movie "Inside Job," which seems to be a very Progressive explanation of the financial crisis, is told with a strong appeal to the barbarian-civilization axis. The director chronicles the 'depravity' of bankers, interviewing former prostitutes and others who can attest to the barbarousness of bankers. The barbarian-civilization heuristic seems to be somewhat common in Progressive discussions: witness discussions about gay marriage or creationism in schools. Their ideological opponents aren't oppressors (though in the former there is some of that), but barbarians who refuse to embrace civilization--a civilization that embraces science, and sees traditional hierarchies as barbaric (as well as oppressive).
These differences in interpretation notwithstanding, this is an excellent and quick read. It is a rare duck that tries to improve political discourse rather than score points for the author's team. There have been critics who argue that this book doesn't advance the academic literature on the cultural theory of preference formation, and so on, but these critics miss the point. As James Buchanan (the economist, not the president) was fond of saying, it takes repeated iterations to force alien concepts on reluctant minds. There are few concepts more alien than respecting your political opponents, and this is an excellent iteration of it.
The purpose of this short pamphlet is to reduce the conflict and animosity in political discourse and to promote cooperation and civil relations between individuals holding different political viewpoints. Your political viewpoint can be identified via a quiz at the beginning of the book.
Kling suggests each political viewpoint can be distinguished as lying primarily along one of thee axes that establish a heuristic or ideology for the language used by each of the three positions. The positions are Progressive, Conservative and Libertarian.
The axes are as follows: Progressives are primarily concerned with Oppressors and the Oppressed; Conservatives with Civilization vs. Barbarism; and Libertarians with Freedom vs. Coercion. These ideologies give rise to the differences in language used by each group and the language, Kling believes, serves to solidify in-group relations while separating one ideology from another.This leads to permanent disagreements between the groups.
Kling believes that differences between ideologies become exaggerated because people use motivated reasoning, i.e., reasoning directed by their ideology, to defend their own views. This follows from current work on decision making in which decisions seem often to be arrived at via a fast `intuitive' system, and full- fledged critical reasoning comes along later to defend one's views (for example, Kahneman, Haidt). Understanding how the languages differ may reduce emotionality thus allowing what Kling's calls constructive reason to be used that might lead individuals of various ideologies to reach agreement on some of the issues separating them.
Kling provides an excellent set of suggested readings that will direct readers to other approaches to this field. Notably, in my view, to Haidt's work (The Righteous Mind) which has pretty much the same goals as Kling's work but far more data than Kling. Haidt provides `moral' axes on which the various political ideologies can be placed. Haidt's work is cross cultural while Kling's concern is more limited to the political elite in the U.S. It isn't clear, for example, how Kling's axes would work in countries outside the U.S.
There may be other problems. As other reviewers have pointed out, the examples given by Kling are not always convincing. And in Chapter Seven Kling introduces several additional characteristics of each political group. It is not clear that these additional characteristics flow from the three axes given above, are new axes, or just some other ingredients needed to make the scheme work. In any case, it raises question regarding the completeness of the three axes description.
Assuming that constructive reasoning will lead individuals of differing ideologies to converge to a solution to a problem may be somewhat unrealistic. Convergence requires that a problem have a unique solution, which is not necessarily the case. Isaiah Berlin points out that there may be problems that have no solution as well as problems that have a multitude of solutions. Convergence to a solution is by no means guaranteed.
Another problem is how to induce constructive reasoning. It may be more difficult that Kling hopes. Many people working in the area of decision making and reasoning argue that constructive reasoning is difficult to evoke, i.e., motivated reasoning is the norm (Haidt, Kahneman).
What can be done to encourage the use of constructive reasoning? One effort, `debiasing', is aimed at removing biases that prevent constructive reasoning (Lilienfeld, Ammirati and Landfeld). Another deals with changing and correcting stereotypes and stereotypical thinking. It is often found that stereotypes can be significantly reduced by having holders of different views work together. In a similar vein, Landemore and Mercier suggest that direct arguments between individuals holding different views may lead to greater understanding. It might also be that there are issues on which some members of even such extreme factions as the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement could agree on. And could cooperate on in attempting to achieve political change. Such cooperation might lead to less acrimony between the groups.
If you aren't familiar with the idea of sorting out political viewpoints in this way, the book will be a revelation. And the suggested readings will move you deeper into this area. If you are already familiar with this idea, the book is likely to seem a bit thin.