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Monday, August 28, 2017


At the conclusion of a long and very interesting two-part comment Austin Haigler asks:  “does anyone try to think about how best to communicate and engage the people that they least agree with and MORE SO don't even share the same conceptualization of objects and their meanings with? I know we all can have a tendency to write off conservatives, evangelicals, Trump supporters as uncanny, stupid, backwards, immoral, regressive, etc, but being from the southern rural areas I am from, I see and know the good mixed up with all the bad in these peoples' lives and ideologies. There has to be a way to reach them and it be effective in SOME way.”

This question cries out for an answer, and I am going to make an effort to begin thinking one through in this post.  I invite my readers, especially those who do not usually comment, to chime in.  Although Haigler poses the question in a very simple, direct way, we must not make the mistake of imagining that there is a simple answer, a turn of phrase that will do the trick.  Of one thig I am certain:  a jargon-laden response full of “interpellation” and “dialectical” and “ideological” and “(re)volution” is worse than useless.

Let me begin with an observation.  Most people have a pretty good grasp of the world they encounter in their daily lives.  They know how to get to the grocery store, who the good guys and the bad guys are at work, who in the neighborhood is living high on the hog and who is just scraping by.  They are not stupid and they are not ignorant.  They may have quite bizarre beliefs about things they do not see or hear or smell or touch.  They may think that the universe was created by a sentient, caring God.  They may think human beings once walked with dinosaurs.  They may believe they live in a land of the free and home of the brave.  They may even imagine that they are paid a wage equal to the marginal product of their labor, a belief far more fanciful than any of the others I have just mentioned.  But be that as it may, they are nevertheless able to go to the grocery store without getting lost.

If you try to argue with someone who believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and spirited into America as a Manchurian Candidate, you will probably have very little success and will certainly find the experience intensely frustrating.  But if you disagree with him or her about how to get to the grocery store – you saying you turn left off Main onto Elm and she saying you turn right off Main onto Broad – the two of you will probably figure out quite quickly a way to settle the dispute, and once settled, my guess is that the loser in that dispute will not persist in maintaining the truth of his or her directions.

Some disputes are disagreements about the way the world is, and some are conflicts between people with opposed interests.  To take an old example that lies at the heart of The Wizard of Oz, if a nineteenth century mid-western farmer and an eastern banker are arguing over the desirability of the Gold Standard, the farmer, who carries a big mortgage on his farm, will argue for going off the Gold Standard, which will increase the rate of inflation and progressively lighten the burden of his monthly payments in real dollars, while the banker will argue for remaining on the Gold Standard, which will keep inflation down and maintain the value, in real dollars, of the mortgage payments he, as the lender, receives.  This is a genuine conflict of interest, not a confusion on someone’s part over the nature of social reality.

What conclusion do I draw from this archaic example?  Well, perhaps it is best to begin a discussion with a Trump supporter by doing two things:  First, find out what she cares about in her immediate daily life, and tell her what you care about in your daily immediate life; Second, ask her whether she believes that Trump will make it easier for her to get what she wants, and if she says yes, find out why she thinks that.  Then tell her what you care about in your immediate life, and explain why you think Trump will make it harder for you to get what you want.

Now, it may well be that at that point, you will both see that what you have is not a disagreement about the way the world is but a conflict of interests.  But it is at least possible that you will be able to show her ways in which Trump is going to make it harder for her to get what she wants.  [I hesitate to suggest that she might be able to show you that Trump is going to make it easier to get what you want.  I mean, let’s be serious.]

This will clearly be the beginning of a very long discussion.  But it is probably going to be more successful than simply pointing out to her that she is a despicable racist fascist.


s. wallerstein said...

Sometimes societies become so polarized and people's sense of identity is so tied up with their political posture that there isn't much you can do to convince the other side. Even if you can show someone that objectively single payer healthcare is in their interest, you just aren't going to win them over because that would mean that person surrendering their sense of who they are.

I think of Chile in the late 60's which became so politically polarized that one side, the right, resorted to a military coup in 1973. In fact, that polarization still exists in Chile, although no military coup is in sight.

You can't do much with adults. You can convert young people, and if you are really concerned about converting people from right to left, become a high school teacher.
Becoming a university teacher is a good second option, but it does seem that the best conversion work functions during high school age. The political option that people adopt in high school generally is life-long.

howard b said...

Reagan's old question: were you better off four years ago?
The Trump supporters I know find plenty of fabricated reasons why their life is better.
They'll say something about the wall and something about how America is respected again and crime is down.
Or they'll return the question to the diabolical Obama.
Each Trump supporter needs a special reality therapist to talk them off the cliff.
Even the Pope believes in Galileo- it took time and was a thankless task

howard b said...

A tough thing is that Trump is slippery. He has no ideology or easily debatable policies. Everything about him is ad hominem. He denies things that really happened and lies so blatantly about just about everything. Part of his appeal to his followers is their wittingly or not being in on it. Trump is their favorite team that they stubbornly root for and insist made the playoffs though they landed in last place

Unknown said...

Prof Wolff,

Thank you for the reply.

Much of what I have attempted is something like trying to peel back the layers of any argument to see what it is that is being argued about. For instance, if we are talking/debating/arguing about healthcare in America, are we ACTUALLY talking about capitalism vs socialism, are we talking about ethics as in 'who has to do what to deserve _________ (in this instance health coverage)?' Are we talking about Right v Left policies and both's past hypocrisies on the subject? Etc. This approach seems to at least curb the notion of talking past one another. That is not to say it isn't arduous and gives diminishing returns when I find that people are not always so keen on breaking down all those smaller issues and then building them back up to the larger overarching issue being discussed. A long exercise, but I guess there is no quicker fix.

My goal is becoming a university professor. But if all I am doing is talking to other people who effectively agree with me (save the minutia of arguments that make up academic journals-- not dissing academic journals, fyi), I know that most of the people in my home community, which is synonymous with the 'hometown' of so many, see professing and researching in the humanities to be just the type of exercise that is superfluous at best, scourging to societal stability at worst. So the idea of engaging those farthest away from us ideologically seems to be what 'we' as progressive people MUST do, less this chasm between Trump and anti-Trump citizens widen ever further.

David said...

Austin Haigler asks a difficult question, one we shouldn’t evade if we’re serious about changing the political climate of our country. I found it helpful to read his question in the context of his two-part comment, and if I understand him correctly, he isn’t asking how we communicate and engage with any of the people we least agree with. That is, he’s not talking about communicating and engaging with any random person we happen to encounter in our daily lives or on the internet. Rather, he’s referring to people we have some connection with, in our families or from our hometown.

If I have this wrong, please correct me. But the reason I make this distinction between random people in the abstract and the people we feel personally connected to is that it makes a difference in how we think about the problem. As anyone who has doorbelled knows, it is very difficult to have any lasting political influence on people we don’t know, even if they live in our own neighborhood. However, it can also be difficult to influence people politically we do know, but for different reasons.

For example, my father is a right-wing conservative and his older sister is a left-wing liberal. They have argued politics on a fairly regular basis for as long as I can remember, about fifty years. My aunt, armed with her PhD in sociology from Rutgers, has not had any appreciable effect—at least so far as I can tell—on my father’s basic political outlook. My aunt, though she communicates and engages with him regularly, is, in fact, one of the people least likely to influence him. That is because when they are arguing he is reacting more to who she is and less to what she is saying. The history of their family dynamics has everything to do with this reaction. My aunt has forced him to become more resourceful in his political justifications, but that is not that same thing as changing his views. When we try to discuss politics with family members or hometown friends, they often weigh who they see us as more than the logic of our arguments.

Needless to say, we’re much more likely to influence people with whom we share mutual sympathy. That mutual sympathy can be basis for the beginning of an authentic exchange of political views. However, if that mutual sympathy isn’t there,—if there is an unstated antagonism instead—we won’t get very far in trying to show it might be in their best interest to entertain a different political viewpoint.

I have to disagree with s. wallterstein that if we want to convert people from right-wing views to left-wing, we should become high school teachers. In my view, that is a very bad motivation for becoming a high school teacher, a job that is quite demanding under even the best of circumstances. Teenagers know almost instantly when an adult doesn’t respect them, and if you go into that relationship with the attitude that their views need to be changed, you will find almost all of your efforts to be counterproductive. What is a far more important responsibility for a high school teacher is to create a climate of mutual respect, one in which students of diverse views and experiences feel open to listening to one another and responding with intelligence, clarity and respect even in disagreement. In other words, it’s important to teach young people how to talk to one another about difficult questions.

Unknown said...

To better contextualize my thoughts I should add:

The reason that I think it is the duty of progressives to start these conversations and extend these olive branches, if you will, is because of actually coming from a social world that is let us say 80-85% Conservative and 75% of those people had little to no issue with or were gleeful in voting for and supporting Trump. I came from that very same social world and I don't hate all of it. Some of the things I despise, but some of the things were the very basis of my living a happy life all of 18 years before moving for college. I did not leave 'home' looking for progressive answers to my existential or pragmatic questions. I was quite happy being where I was intellectually speaking. But now that I have l learned more (or so I hope), I see that the progressive perspectives, or the ones I have learned, build upon all the formations and foundations that were actually put in place by my conservative surroundings for the first two decades of my life.

So being progressive in the sense that I am invoking means understanding all the more conservative stances and arguments and building upon them, 'progressing them' if you will, to improve them and add to them as opposed to being outright opposed to them.

If one is adhering to a view that takes more of X into account than another view it seems that one has a duty (an informal duty, I'm not talking of any moral imperatives here, nor being overly nosy) to engage the other person to attempt to add to or progress their view of whatever the subject at hand is rather than as you said, write them off as a despicable racist fascist and be in immediate opposition.

Hope to read some responses to all this!

Unknown said...

Somewhat unrelated, but s. wallerstein,

I have read your comments for sometime and always appreciate your take as an ex pat (I think I'm right about that, sorry if I'm mislabeling you). I just read a very good book out of UNC press by Patrick Barr-Melej called 'Psychedelic Chile: Youth Counterculture, and Politics on the Road to Socialism and Dictatorship.' You may enjoy it, or enjoy taking a look at it.

Unknown said...


You are correct. I am talking about how to communicate and do so with some effectivity with people who we know on some level. Not necessarily an immediate family member (but that is a good start), but people with whom one may share some deep parts of an identity with, but then vastly differ in some crucial aspects of an overall worldview.

And my whole idea is that evading such a question is effectively not an option. We can't merely talk to ourselves about how bad Trump is (and everything he stands for), because that boxes us off to any of the people who put him in office. 'Our' views of ideology may be more sophisticated and 'more correct' than some others, but to 'them' our views seem just as ideological. If we are not engaging those with other ideologies then the political climate will only worsen as it moves further down its current course.

s. wallerstein said...

Austin Haigler,

Thank you very much.

I appreciate your concern for keeping in touch with the people you grew up with, even though you've taken another political path. In my experience, adults are almost impossible to convert from right to left (or vice versa), although they can be convinced to move from one position on the left to another or probably, from one position on the right to another (I have little personal experience of how the right functions).

However, given your obvious intelligence, learning and youthful force of character, maybe you can prove me wrong. I would say that you might start your family political education campaign with your younger cousins and siblings (if you have any): teenagers can be converted by good arguments and a bit of socratic questioning.


When I say "convert" people from right to left, you probably imagine someone on a street corner with a Bible in their hands screaming at those who pass by to acknowledge Christ as their savior. A high school teacher, who "converts" kids from right to left, will need to be socratic and seductive (as Socrates was seductive). High school kids are the targets of innumerable marketing campaigns from i-phones to pop stars and there is no reason why a committed high school teacher cannot convince some that leftwing politics are ethically superior. He or she will not convince all of their students, but he or she will convince some: I can tell you from my own experience in high school 55 years ago.

howard b said...

S. Wallerstein

About switching sides. many Trump voters voted Obama in 2012. Trump in many ways is a brand with no ideology but with hefty emotions behind it and a revolutionary gesture.
Unless you think he is the wave of the future, we need to roll back some of his hurricane or tidal wave, and give vulnerable and reasonable people an alternative.
Plus if Corey Robin is correct, he is a transitional figure.
We'll see

David said...

s. wallerstein,

I am aware that the word “convert” holds religious connotations, but I didn’t take your statement that way. Rather, I imagined a teacher with conscious intentions of moving students with right-wing views over to the left.

I should say that I am a high school teacher. In addition, I should say that I’m a teacher in Seattle, where the overwhelming majority of students come into the classroom with decidedly left-of-center views. I do have a few students with right-wing views, but I don’t see it as my mission to convert the few remaining holdouts. Rather, I’m concerned with a classroom environment in which they, as everyone else, feel they can openly take on difficult questions and allow themselves to be challenged by the viewpoints of other students.

The job of a high school teacher in a diverse urban school is highly complex, and teachers who go into it with focused intentions of moving students to particular political views are already undermining one of the key responsibilities of a teacher: to help students cultivate an independent life of the mind. In short, if I were to succeed in telling my students how to think, I would be undermining their education in learning how to think for themselves.

You suggest that we left-wing teachers should be subtle in our approach to converting students, but I can tell you that young people are sensitive to nuance and know when they are being manipulated. I think it’s far more important for students to come to their own realizations of their political interests through authentic dialogue with each other, through an engagement with complex and thought-provoking texts, and through the struggle to write well-reasoned arguments that consider competing perspectives.

Finally, the politics of right and left are a gross simplification of the kinds of issues we ought to be discussing in our classrooms. Students in our school are very much concerned about issues of race, gender and ethnicity. I find myself frequently challenged by my own students, which is the way it ought to be. I take these challenges seriously, and I sometimes hold this quote (taken out of context) from Stanley Cavell as my motto: "In the culture depicted in the Investigations we are all teachers and all students—talkers, hearers, overhearers, hearsayers, believers, explainers; we learn and teach incessantly, indiscriminately; we are all elders and all children, wanting a hearing, for our injustices, for our justices."

Enam el Brux said...

I'm am at last relieved to find that someone considers it the duty of progressives (and others) to converse with and educate others instead of alienating them. All too often I hear, at least from Internet call-out culture activists (among others), that it isn't their job to educate others. I find myself stumbling around Plato's cave when I encounter this inexcusable attitude.

Michael Albert posed the question of emancipating the oppressed without alienating so many potential allies in Mirror Mirror, on the wall..., published in Counterpunch on Jan 3, 2107.

s. wallerstein said...


I doubt that "an independent life of the mind" (your phrase) could lead anyone to support Trump.

"An independent life of the mind" might lead someone towards being a Bernie Sanders progressive or towards being a Marxist revolutionary or towards being a anarchist like Chomsky or even towards being an Obama liberal (I sadly confess that).

So in stimulating "an independent life of the mind", you are steering people politically away from Trumpism and away from contemporary Republicanism.

Chomsky does very effective political work starting with the golden rule and with his "look in the mirror first" principle: that is, before condemning someone, see if you do it (or if your society does it) yourself.

My daughter-in-law is a high school teacher like yourself and she tries to stimulate critical thinking among her students, with the underlying idea that critical thinking will lead to progressive conclusions. I think that she's right.

David said...

My "life of the mind" phrase isn't original. Professor Wolff says it much better here:

In that article, Professor Wolff wrote:

"It is not the purpose of a Philosophy class to transmit information or inculcate skills, however useful that may be. It is to introduce students to the life of the mind, with all the characterological as well as intellectual changes that requires. It is to welcome the young man or woman into a moral sphere in which argument, honesty, and a passion for ideas reign. This is accomplished -- it can only be accomplished -- through the establishment and nurturing of a relationship between the teacher and the student. There are no rules for how that relationship is to be created or sustained."

That is beautifully said.

howie b said...

Plus, to make a generalization, not only as Professor Wolff observes people have a conception of their immediate existence but nothing beyond- they imagine that with a deplorable like Trump in office ceritus peribus, everything will be the same, but better. They have no real notion of the actual impact of their actions, (to make a poetic allusion to the Odyssey, they are like Odysseus's crew who through their foolishness failed to make it back from Troy)

Edwin K. said...

I must say that I'm pessimistic about the possibility of converting other people to different views. Events like the remarkable failure of Christian missionaries in Asia in the 19th century should demonstrate as much. It's not in anyone's power to destroy an opinion culture by means of debate if that culture sees opponents as out-groups.

In the end, we will have to face the ancient problem of arguing with Thrasymachus. Even if we are capable of making him blush at his ignorance, he won't admit that he's wrong. Rather, in the case that we're facing such a fierce opponent, we will at best both come to understand that we're all sitting in the same boat. Even though we might try to turn it in a different direction because we disagree about matters of astronomy, we can't just sabotage each other's means of navigation, because we share them equally.

Now, not everyone is Thrasymachus, but even fewer have had the privilege of a philosophical education. The degree of a person's elasticity of opinion depends to a large degree on the feelings towards their opinions relative to those felt towards their interlocutor. Thus, I think, we might be able to "convert" people like Trump supporters; to do this we just need to work to become friends by mutually controlling our temper and trying to be more like Socrates (though, of course, this is a far cry from possible reality; but it is, I apprehend, the only way to ever come to synthesize or rectify opinion cultures).

Jerry Fresia said...

I think the best way to move away from defining and feeling as though your political adversary is "stupid, backwards, immoral, regressive" is to let all of that go and find COMMON GROUND. The best common ground that might then permit an actual exchange of ideas where both sides actually listen and digest the thoughts of the other is the kind of common ground that is pleasurable and excites both parties - somewhat akin to "ping-pong diplomacy. An exchange of string quartets? That would be nice - or, more likely, Ways of Playing the Piano...or Violin...or...?

Believe or not my undergraduate degree was in electrical engineering and my degree was from the Virginia Military Institute.
Long story. Bottom line: VMI was a cauldron of racism among other nightmarish dynamics.

Then on December 10, 1967 Otis Redding died. And before my eyes, the "keydets" born and raised in Virginia - who were as nasty as the Charlottesville "blood and soil" gang, were balling their eyes out.

Common ground.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a good way to start would be doing the unthinkable: to ask what those people want.

I realise that may be too much to ask, so I'll point to Jason Wilson. He did something like that:

It may be that bigotry is not the only thing driving them. To what extent other things may drive them away from bigotry is another question.

s. wallerstein said...


Actually, one of the topics we have most discussed in this blog since Trump was nominated as a candidate (or even before that) is what those people want.

If anything, many of us (although not me) have bent over backwards to understand them, feeling guilty that we have not been able to reach out to those people and to offer a political program which deals with their perceived and/or real needs, but in any case,
thanks for the link.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor Wolff, it is probably commendable that you switch back and forth to the female pronoun "she" in your writings. But I do believe that women were less likely to support Trump in this election. So they might not appreciate your diligence in switching gender in this case. But you might be right- I was surprised by just how many women voted for "the pussy grabber" according to exit polls. Luckily, I have never maintained that I understand women...

Anonymous said...

If anything, many of us (although not me) have bent over backwards to understand them

Very well, Wallerstein, I'll try to translate what Wilson wrote. Please tell me what part of these sentences need further explanation:

(1) the state “shall make it its primary duty to provide a livelihood for its citizens”.
(2) It calls for “the nationalisation of all businesses which have been formed into corporations”.

Let's just for a moment leave aside who wrote those demands. Do they sound atrocious to you? I ask that because I don't find anything monstrous in them.

Now, let's go back to who wrote them. According to Wilson (I haven't checked) those demands are to be found in a document written by the leader of the National Socialist Movement.

Now, we -- and hopefully every single person reading this -- both know the NSM doesn't really give a shit about those things. The point is that their followers might feel otherwise. Hopefully, some of them may even give those demands greater weight than they give all the racialist crap.

Is that so difficult to understand that one needs to bend over backwards?

s. wallerstein said...

Very well, anonymous,

I'm Jewish and I lost many family members in the Holocaust.

As a young man, in the early 60's, I participated in CORE, Congress on Racial Equality, and if there is one good cause that still moves me in my cynical and jaded old age, it's that of anti-racism.

I have utterly no use for Nazis and for racists, and I will not bend over backwards for them nor show them any consideration, kindness or empathy.

The left needs to extend its electoral base getting more blacks, latinos and apolitical youth out to vote and out to march. It doesn't need Nazis nor anti-semites. If some Nazis or anti-semites want see the light and renounce their evil doctrines, fine, but otherwise.....

If you can get them to understand the brotherhood/sisterhood of all men/women, more power to you.

Anonymous said...


If anything, believe this. I appreciate your honesty.

Perhaps it's too much to ask you extend that belief any further, so you may not believe what follows, but I understand the way you feel. I won't lie to you. I didn't lose family in the holocaust, but I can at least imagine your loss.

Bottom line, I don't blame you.

But in the same spirit of honesty I'll say that the problem of hatred and bigotry is not confined to them. You hate them and it's not a matter of bending over backwards. This is not a matter of them oppressing black folks, either. This is not about the Hispanics or the native Americans.

This is a matter of you wanting to punish them. That's the problem. It's not a matter of not understanding, it's a matter of not being willing to understand.

Like I said, I don't blame you. But let's call things the properly.

Jerry Brown said...

"This is a matter of you wanting to punish them. That's the problem. It's not a matter of not understanding, it's a matter of not being willing to understand."

I think you fell off something and hit your head too hard Anonymous. I think Mr. Wallerstein understands very well what racism and anti-semitism and neo nazis and most unfortunately the real Nazis were and are all about. These are not ideas that people need to learn so they can empathize with the believers and understand where they are coming from.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Brown said...

I think you fell off something and hit your head too hard Anonymous.

Who knows. Maybe I did, Brown.

This, however, is David Palmeter addressing another Anonymous

David Palmeter said...

According to news reports of polls that I have seen, not all who voted for Trump still support him. A Quinnipiac poll reported that 66% of white voters without a college degree voted for him, but according to Quinniac, that number is now down to 43%. That's still significant, but it is strong evidence that as each day goes by his support is eroding. It's still enough to keep almost all congressional Republicans in his camp, but if the trend continues the few who have already bailed on him will be joined by many others.

Note the date: August 30, 2017 at 12:38 PM.

It's a comment to Prof. Wolff's next post. You can see it here:

Unknown said...

I appreciate all the feedback this post generated by mentioning my question.

I am curious Jerry Fresnia, once your common ground was reached over Otis Redding at VMI, do you recall anything developing from that moment on, in the direction of a more empathetic connection to the ideas from 'those of the other side' (by you or they), perhaps? Was the common ground just for the moment, or was it something that catalyzed growth and or understanding between you and they?
Also, I'm a fan of the Political Art History guest posts. Hope to see more.

Unrelated, but this is for Prof Wolff:

Are you doing a series of Lectures on Marx this fall? I remember it being mentioned during the Freud lectures (I think), and I didn't want to miss it.