Communication: Essential to Problem-Solving as a Group

Scream Blame to Lose

It’s hard for me not to think of League of Legends as a social experiment: Five strangers, thrown together to solve a problem (made up of a series of problems). Sometimes it works incredibly well, other times, it goes incredibly poorly. I still don’t know if the single most important factor for success is execution or communication, but I have learned that communication matters a lot more than I initially thought it would.

After thousands of games, I have noticed some unsurprising patterns: optimism, clear and specific communication, and goal-oriented planning are consistently effective; negativity, blame, malice, and angry generalizations routinely lead to failure. While some games can be won with relatively little communication at all, I have seen negative communication cause losses that would not have happened amid total silence.

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been reflecting on the most recent election cycle. As someone with an interest in language, political science (the effort to describe and explain political phenomena), the effect of media on individuals and society, and a little US history, I am particularly struck by the current state of political discourse in the US.

A Nation of Arguments

The USA is a weird country from its inception. Before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, the country was arguing- constantly and continually- about the correct decisions for its political structure. What makes this weird is not that there was disagreement among the revolutionaries—every revolution has factions some internal struggles. What makes the US peculiar is that the revolutionaries kept debating, writing, and arguing. For years. Decades, even. They didn’t kill each other (except Burr v. Hamilton?), they didn’t just decide the other side was too stupid to see reason and give up, and they didn’t quit. This pattern for ceaseless debate and argumentation was the hallmark of US politics until about 1852, when the last two really great debaters and negotiators (Clay and Webster) died—and the nation plunged into Civil War less than a decade later.

But despite ongoing differences in an ever-expanding nation, the Federal government continued to debate and argue until they found a way to work together. Throughout most of the 20th century, Congress was divided into Red and Blue teams, but those teams repeatedly worked together for the greater good of the nation.

Echo Chambers and Intolerant Vitriol

It’s always hard to tell how your own time period compares to the times you never experienced. But I think there’s some objective evidence to support the claim that the US is more divided than it was at any time in the 20th century—and maybe at any time outside of its civil war.

There are a lot of problems and concerns facing the American people and the US political structure. Though it appears less immediate than some of those problems, I am most concerned about the condition of discourse. I am most concerned about this because it is an indispensable tool for politics in the US. If citizens and politicians cannot (or will not) rise to the level of the first 100 years* of political discussion and effort, I don’t know how much of America (as ideals, laws, political norms, etc) will survive the next few years. I am concerned about the future of a nation founded on debate and compromise that has no capacity for debate and no tolerance for compromise. I don’t know what comes of an America that loses its ability and willingness to doggedly wade through complicated political issues to reach understanding and compromise. If the past is any indication, it looks like 1860-1865.

I hope I’m just being an overly- anxious alarmist. I’ve had plenty of games where communication broke down, but then recovered.

 

*Let’s be real: it was not all sunshine and roses. Jefferson v Adams is up there in for the dirtiest smear campaign in US history. And the only assault of a US Senator, BY a US Senator, on the SENATE FLOOR, happened just before the Civil War. I don’t want to over-romanticize the past.

Logic: A Forgotten Principle of Discourse.

What should discourse have that it often lacks? Logic is not “what seems reasonable” or “what feels right.” Like chess or mathematics, it has a strict set of formal rules. We use logic to show the connection or lack of connection between concepts. It is machinery into which we put our perceptions and values. Used correctly, it has an important role in quality discourse, but it is not the totality of discourse. Logic bears on how we express ideas, but it does not determine the ideas we express. When we make meaningful arguments, there must be proper and improper ways to interpret and understand what we say. If we do not make the boundaries of our statements clear, they may be interpreted liberally. The more possible interpretations a thing has, the weaker its effective force as an argument. (Note that excellent fictional prose or poetry often lauds multiple interpretations. Also note that arguments of formal logic are a very different sort of poetry.)

This touches on the greater abuses of statistics and imagery in everyday arguing: statements that sound large but are undefined and unbounded. You may tell me a tremendous-sounding statistic, but without context. You may show me a striking photograph, but without significance. All too often, we are given a sound bite or image and expected to “see” some inherent rightness or wrongness. Good arguments are more than only conclusions; they explain what is being asserted and upon what grounds such an assertion could or should be believed. (Some may cringe at my glossing over the “belief is not closed under implication” issue. I sympathize, but just go with the shorthand.)

Perhaps the greatest threat to good discourse is assuming the speaker advocates the opposite of what he argues against. (e.g., when I criticize the way “privilege” is used in debates about race or gender theory is bad, people assume that I favor oppression of others or fail to see it.) This makes it hard to have clear and careful discussion about sensitive (emotionally charged) topics. By making assumptions about the position of the speaker, we forbid constructive criticism- and therefore the growth- of progress on important issues. Avoiding logical fallacies is not a neat academic trick without relevance to daily conversation. Just as the rules of mathematics or science or language can help us in real ways, logic can help us better understand ourselves and each other, and make progress in debates and discussions, and avoid misunderstandings and unintended offense.

A Head in the Sand is Not an Ideal Source of Rights.

Whether restricting or expanding rights, we need to be very careful about how and why we do it. Expanding rights feels good, but when we do it because it feels good, it can be hard to stop. Restricting rights might sometimes feel moral or make us seem safer, but if we’re chasing an illusion of security, we may never stop running after it.

Americans have a culture of celebrating their freedom of public discourse by expressing their opinions, through news media, letters to public officials, discussions around the bar and the dinner table, and so on. With all of our focus on discussions, we rarely think critically about the way we discuss. We leap on solitary arguments, but often in isolation of other arguments and often miss larger pictures. This not only makes our debates aimless and fruitless, it makes them potentially dangerous for a common law nation: The more prone we are to accepting a single, isolated point as justification for a policy, the more easily that same isolated point can be applied inappropriately to quasi-related situations. While it seems true that the daily activities of other people don’t have an immediate and pressing effect on us, not all possible rights seem well founded in the principle “let people do what they want.” One reason is that we would be unsatisfied allowing truly unlimited rights for people (unless we are anarchists), but another reason is that other people’s actions actually do affect us. (For more information on this, I recommend the book Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon.)

I am inclined to think that the many freedoms of speech and press guaranteed by law in this country are only truly good for society if society uses them responsibly and smartly. It may be that a nation of sloppy, half-thought discourse is worse than government restrictions on public speech.