Three Languages is a short read expounding just one key idea, and yet it’s one that’s changed the way I’ll think, and especially talk, about politics. Within its pages, economist Arnold Kling attempts to explain the polarization definitive of the current era in American politics—a polarization so acute that opponents see each other as not simply misguided but insane. Kling’s hypothesis is that opposing camps judge the world according to perpendicular standards, by which each side might view a given reality and interpret it in an internally consistent way that nonetheless seems incomprehensible, or at least irrelevant, to the others. And the political language we use assumes—even imposes—these standards in a way we rarely realize.
Kling draws on the important distinction between constructive and motivated reasoning. Constructive reasoning is when you impartially gather facts and weight arguments to arrive at a position on an issue. Motivated reasoning is when you already know or have been told your position prior to the facts, and pick and choose your facts and arguments to selectively reinforce that opinion. Kling’s thesis is that the political language used by different political groups encourages motivated, rather than constructive reasoning.
The idea that different political groups are speaking past each other—in different languages, even—isn’t a new one. What’s refreshing in Three Languages is that the author actually tries to identify what those languages are. However, Kling prefers to call them “axes,” bringing to mind the image of a Cartesian coordinate system with its X, Y, and Z axes which all count the same numbers but never intersect except at the origin. Kling identifies axes of interpretation for the three dominant strains of political affiliation in America today:
- For liberals, it’s the oppressor vs. oppressed axis. They’re most interested in identifying who is abusing power (bonus points if it’s undeserved), and who are the victims of that abuse.
- Conservatives align along the civilization vs. barbarism axis. They seek to identify who is defending what our forebears built, and who are the rebels trying to tear it down.
- And for libertarians, it’s about freedom vs. coercion. In other words, who is being forced to do what they’d rather not, or being prevented from doing what they’d like, by whom.
(It’s easy to get hung up on the language. After all, Libertarians may feel “oppressed” by taxes just as liberals may find a lack of universal healthcare “barbaric,” and conservatives may never actually use the term “barbarism.” But Kling’s point is more about the values behind how we choose sides, rather than the terms we use to describe them.)
If you identify as one of those groups, Kling argues, your tend to frame issues in terms of your preferred axis. Take for example the legalization of marijuana. I can imagine a kind of dialogue:
- Liberal: The government’s War on Drugs has devastated urban poor communities. This is clearly an issue of oppression, and and if you disagree you must just be okay with oppression.
- Conservative: I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is clearly an issue about maintaining order, and if you disagree then you’re arguing for anarchy.
- Libertarian: You’re both wrong! This is about defending one’s sacred freedom to smoke whatever one likes as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. If you disagree, you must hate freedom.
Of course, this hardly counts as dialogue. Immediately framing issues in our preferred terms has some poisonous effects on the debate, as we can see:
- It locks us into a frame of reference, preventing us from seeing things from our opponents’ point of view, and locks them out of seeing things from ours.
- It causes us to see our opponents in the least favorable light, with no relation to how they actually see themselves.
- It lets us feel victimized, because our opponents refuse to speak in the language we’ve decided to use.
- It lets us feel morally superior, because our language presupposes a value system that our opponents don’t subscribe to.
Now, the author isn’t arguing that we’re capable of viewing issues only on our preferred terms. But there are several reasons why we so often fall into this trap:
- The preferred axis is our default, which we fall back on when we don’t have the time or energy to fully examine all sides of every issue (which, let’s be honest, is a lot of the time). He mentions a concept in psychology called closure, which is the point at which you’ve made up your mind about an issue. Our default axis, Kling argues, is a kind of shortcut to closure.
- A political group exerts pressure along its preferred axis. If you want to fit in with a politically homogenous group (whether it’s a political party or a dinner party), the path of least resistance is to frame things on its preferred terms. As Kling puts it: “Within a tribe, political language is used to reassure others of one’s loyalty to the tribe, to lift one’s status within the tribe, and to whip up hostility against other tribes.”
- Our preferred axis is where we’re most vulnerable to manipulation. Because it’s a shortcut to closure, it’s the easiest way for someone to trick us into thinking an issue is less complicated than it really is. And most often, it’s not our enemies manipulating us, but our own side:
Consider three goals that a political pundit might have. One goal is to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on your own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on your own side. Nearly all of the punditry that appears in the various media today serves only the third goal.
So, how can we get beyond this? Kling’s prescription is simple: resist arguing in terms of your preferred axis, and learn to see things along the other axes:
What learning the other languages can do is enable you to understand how others think about political issues without having to resort to the theory that they are crazy or stupid or evil.
And, at all costs, reject the hypocritical impulse to see others as unreasonable:
One of my prescriptions for constructive reasoning is to try to avoid telling yourself, “I’m reasonable, they’re not.” Instead, I would suggest the following rule of thumb. The only person you are qualified to pronounce unreasonable is yourself.