Joyce activated, issue 71

In which I describe what I learned from doing a "street epistemology" session with Peter Boghossian, Eric Kaufmann and Andy Ngo

Joyce activated, issue 71

On Wednesday I took part in a “spectrum street epistemology” session run by Peter Boghossian, who interviewed me some time ago. He is well-known for submitting hoax papers in “grievance studies” to journals and has co-written several books, among them “How to Have Impossible Conversations”. I took the word “street” over-literally when preparing and wore a heavy coat, hat and scarf (it was absolutely freezing in London) – only to turn up at what I thought was just the meeting-place to discover, to my great relief, that we were filming inside.

If you’ve never seen this method in action, Boghossian has an entire YouTube channel dedicated to it. (It was born out of the New Atheist movement, but I don’t think that should put religious people off using it.) I’ve only watched a couple of sessions so far, but intend to watch many more, because the experience of doing it was fascinating (I’m not sure when the session I did is going live, but it hasn’t yet and may not for a while). I highly recommend the technique, and think it could really help with the sort of difficult conversations that many of us feel we need to have with family, friends or colleagues. Peter would like to get schools using it, and I think that’s a great idea.

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Ideally, I would have been paired with someone who disagrees with me on gender issues. But it’s the usual story: people who hold any of the opinions broadly labelled progressive or woke won’t talk to people who don’t. Some even think we shouldn’t be allowed to talk among ourselves: here’s Peter with Billboard Chris being told repeatedly that they are fucking idiots and to shut the fuck up, and that people like them should never be allowed to speak (from around half-way through; the whole video isn’t very long). 

So I’m issuing an open invitation: anyone who disagrees substantively with me on gender issues is welcome to get in touch, and when Peter is next in town I’ll get in touch with him to set up and film a spectrum street epistemology session. Go on. What do you have to lose?

At the heart of the method is a “spectrum” set out on the floor or ground, running from strongly agree to strongly disagree via neutral. Everyone (often just two people) starts on neutral; a statement is made; and each person moves to whichever position they feel represents their position on it. 

If the participants land on the same side but not equally strongly (say one is on “agree” and the other on “strongly agree”), they each say why they are where they are, and anyone who wants can move. If they’re on the same position, the moderator may decide to scrap that question and move on – or not, if someone has something interesting to say, and that sparks a discussion. Or the moderator may toss a coin and the participant who calls it right gets to decide whether to move to the opposite position or to send the other participant there. It’s then the mover’s responsibility to do their best to make the points they think someone who chose to stand there would have made. 

If you landed on positions opposite each other in the first place, the moderator hands you both a wipe-clean board and you write down your reason, keeping it to yourself. Then you take turns to say what you think the other person has written, and each time they say whether you’re right or wrong. If you can’t guess after three attempts, they reveal what you’ve written down.

Maybe that isn’t all that clear! And maybe I haven’t remembered all the possibilities. But anyway, it’s easy to play, and if you watch one of Peter’s videos it’ll all make sense.

My main takeaway was how easy it is to think you know why other people hold the positions they do, and how easy it is to be wrong. The two people I did it with were Eric Kaufmann, a Canadian political scientist who works at Birkbeck, University of London, and Andy Ngo, an author and journalist from Portland, Oregon. I have met both before but know neither well – I’ve had a couple of conversations in larger groups with Eric and been introduced to Andy at a couple of events. But I’m well aware of both as commentators on what you might call “culture war” issues, including the one I focus on, namely gender. I was pretty certain beforehand that they were roughly on the same side as me on both trans issues and the importance of free speech, though perhaps for slightly different reasons.

And so you’d expect that we generally landed on the same position, and that whether or not we did we’d be good at guessing the reasons behind each other’s choices. And yet that turned out not to be the case. On several questions we found ourselves on opposite positions – and entirely failed to work out why. 

It was so much richer an experience than a standard debate, and not for the usually stated reasons. People often dismiss debates as deliberately conflictual, with participants seeking to win rather than find commonalities or learn. That may be so, but as I struggled and failed to fathom why I and someone whom I know broadly agrees with me had heard the same simple proposition but were standing on “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree”, and as I watched that person do the same for me, I realised that a much bigger problem is the way that in any debate all sorts of things are said that neither of you ever get to follow up on.

Misconceptions go unaddressed, both concerning things that one of you says to which the other has an excellent rebuttal or even a knock-down factual correction, and things where you are both talking at cross purposes. What we think we’re saying often isn’t what the other person hears. We can be oblivious to things the other person thinks are so obvious they don’t even need saying. And two people with similar viewpoints can listen to the same simple, clearly phrased proposition and react entirely differently because of their personal, professional and intellectual characteristics and training.

The questions Eric and I disagreed on were good examples. I’ll avoid spoilers, but a very large part of the reason we went in opposite directions is because he’s a social scientist and my habits of mind are very different from those of his professional training. We heard different things in the statements made, and understood them within different intellectual frameworks. So of course we couldn’t guess why the other person disagreed with us on the truth of certain propositions: we didn’t even realise what it was the other was hearing.

In one instance, after we had shown each other our boards and talked a bit more, we realised that we each interpreted the phrase “gender identity” quite differently. He is used to thinking of people as having all sorts of personal characteristics, some of which are self-decided and can roughly be called identities – religious, patriotic or libertarian, for example – and the way you’d know they have those identities is that they say so in response to a survey. The identity can be thought of as stable if they say it repeatedly over time. A researcher might ask about these identities in order to study the characteristics of people who assert them – are they more likely to be well-educated, healthy, happy, pro-social, employed or whatever? And they might then think about causation: why are people with a certain identity, in this sense, more likely to be unemployed or mentally ill, or to have children or a degree? And so on.

That all makes perfect sense to me, once it’s stated. But when I hear the phrase “gender identity”, it’s not what I think of at all. My mind jumps straight to the Descartian dualist claims made in the transactivist materials that have by now overrun education systems, HR departments and health-care systems. That “trans women are women”. That “everyone has a gender identity”. The workbooks that implore you to look within to divine your gender identity, and that tell children that someone who likes “girl things” or “boy things” is therefore a girl or boy. All that stuff that I guess Eric doesn’t see in his work, just as I don’t design and analyse social-science questionnaires.

But it’s more than that, I have to admit. By nature, I’m an extremely categorical thinker. There’s a reason I have a PhD in pure mathematics and found the stats courses I did as an undergraduate very boring. I find the results of statistical inquiry fascinating – so fascinating that I worked for several years editing the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, Significance – but I shudder at the thought of actually collecting and analysing data. 

The main result in my PhD was a proof by contradiction, otherwise known as a reductio ad absurdum. In these proofs you start with an assertion, follow the logic forward and get to an untenable point – an absurd conclusion – which allows you to work your way back and say your starting-point has to have been false. This is very black-and-white thinking! A single counterexample disproves the starting hypothesis (and it does, it really does: categorical statements require just one counterexample to knock them down). But there’s nothing black-and-white like that in social science. There are always going to be people who give answers that are internally inconsistent, and people whose responses are consistent but highly atypical. And even after you remove outliers your results will be correlations, and often not very strong correlations, at that.

Eric and I also found ourselves on opposite sides in response to a proposition linking transgenderism and transhumanism (it was phrased in a simpler and less leading fashion). Eric disagreed; I agreed (unsurprisingly, since it was inspired by something I had said in another interview!). And again neither of us worked out why the other had landed there. 

To paraphrase, hopefully not too wildly, Eric said that this was a kind of category error – gender-identity theory is part of a leftist political project that is nothing to do with wanting to conquer death. I don’t disagree with that, and once Eric said it, it was a perfectly natural framing coming from a political scientist. 

But gender-identity theory is also, when you listen to what its adherents say and watch what they do, a godless neo-religion. For a given individual it may be more one or the other of these (or many other things, including self-hatred, internalised homophobia, a desire to be interesting and much more). But you only have to listen to the catchphrases like “trans people are sacred”, notice the willingness to sacrifice children’s bodies on the altar of adult identity claims and watch detransitioners being excommunicated to see the religious aspects.

And part of that neo-religion is a desire to be godlike: to make an assertion of sovereignty over your own person, even to the extent of assertions about your sex. It’s a promise that humans can transcend material reality and biological givens – and now the link with transhumanism is clearer. Of course it’s there in the very title of the book “From transgender to transhuman” by trans-identified man Martine Rothblatt – a book that for my sins I’ve read and which Eric hadn’t heard of.

After Eric and I did a bunch of questions all related in one way or another to gender, Andy arrived and he and Eric did some without me on immigration. I sat out of shot and listened. My main takeaway was something I already knew: how persuasive rock-solid facts can be. They shape conversations by ruling out some of the theoretical possibilities and constraining the discussion to a smaller set of outcomes. Even if two people can’t agree at all on, say, Brexit, or how many immigrants a country should admit or how it should decide whom to let in, simply knowing the current figures for absolute and net immigration, and the demographic characteristics of the people moving to and from your country, such as age, country of origin, religious affiliation and education level, gives you some agreed points upon which to base the discussion.

And for gender identity, that’s a big problem, because there are no agreed facts. Even setting aside the fact of people’s sex – obviously a big thing to set aside! – the well has been poisoned by the false claims, hyperbole and distortion of language. But also by the way the people and institutions we should be able to turn to for, say, statistics on detransition, the impact of puberty-blockers on IQ or the prevalence of autogynephilia – to pick just three important examples of many – are either strategically saying silent or totally captured. Even the old-style gender doctors who by and large don’t hold with expansive claims about gender identity have lost any claim to the position of neutral arbiter, because it was they who started the whole mad business of interrupting children’s puberty, and of giving men letters to wave around when challenged in women’s spaces saying they were there under doctors’ orders.

Finally, Eric, Andy and I responded together to some slightly more left-field propositions. One provided more evidence, if more was needed, that I’m a very categorical thinker.

The proposition was written in the form that “everyone” should “champion” a position that I do in fact strongly agree with, as both Eric and Andy also did. But I don’t want there to be anything that we’re all required to champion. I dig my heels in when anyone tries to drag me into something, even something I think is a good thing. I have a personal aversion, for example, to joining a political party. I liked being a journalist, and dropping into other people’s lives and conversations and trying to see things in the round. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be happy working for a campaign group. What makes it work for me is precisely what a lot of other people wouldn’t like, namely that it concerns a single issue that interests people from across the political and intellectual spectrum. That saves me from feeling like I’ve been pigeonholed and stripped of my intellectual independence.

On this occasion I probably overreacted to the words “everyone” and “champion” – and therefore didn’t comment at all on the substantive position that appealed to both Eric and Andy, and indeed to me. But I still think I made a good and generally applicable point about the risks inherent in thinking that some values are so important that we should expect everyone’s positive allegiance. I’m certain that both of them disapprove of the political loyalty tests that EDI policies are increasingly imposing on academics; I think these would be bad even if I wholeheartedly approved of the values they required adherence to.

The most touching and perhaps illuminating discussion of the afternoon came between all three of us as well. And surprisingly, it developed out of a proposition on which we all held the same position. Peter was about to discard that proposition and move on when I pointed out that it was to do with the sex binary, and that since one of us was a woman and two were men, our reasoning had to be different. There was an interesting exchange of views – and then Peter followed up with a question related to sexual orientation, on which the three of us also differ (Andy is gay; Eric and I are straight).

Andy then talked about something intensely personal that he hadn’t at all expected to say. (I’ll leave it for the video rather than try to summarise here.) He shared it, he said afterwards, because of his commitment to honesty and free speech, even when it’s uncomfortable. For me it was a profound interaction, and I’d be happy to have more of those in my life. 

So what were my main takeaways? First, even clear propositions are often understood very differently by different people. Second, even when you think you know why people think what they think, you probably don’t and may not be able to guess, and this can still happen when you already know a lot about their political positions and intellectual commitments. Third, you can hear what another person says and think it extremely sensible, but still not change your position because the two of you value various good things differently. 

Fourth, I suspect this was an unusual street epistemology session because all of us were talking on topics we have thought about for hundreds, even thousands, of hours. Most opinions, including ours, aren’t like that! I can imagine shifting much more, and more easily, if the propositions concerned topics I know less about and the other person presented facts and arguments I hadn’t ever heard before.

And last, I’m struck by how much the experience made me feel more positive about everyone involved (I don’t mean I previously felt negatively about Andy or Eric, just that neither was someone I knew at all well). It’s inherently humanising to hear people explain why they think what they think, because it reveals aspects of their unique character, personality traits and experiences. The whole thing also just felt really good-faith and interesting. I ended up hugging Andy, which I don’t think either of us would have expected. Maybe there are times it’s best to think of someone as a cartoon villain, but in general it seems to me that there’s far too much of that around. 

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I hope that all of this hasn’t been too abstract, since I haven’t said much about what the propositions were. But I didn’t want to wait until the video was published to write about it because that may be quite a while, and it’s now that I’m buzzing about it. I’ll share the video when it comes out, and will be really interested to hear what people think of it in light of this writeup. In the meantime I urge you to watch some other sessions on Peter’s channel, and maybe think about how you could incorporate this approach and its insights into your own discussions. 

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