Why we can't have civil conversations anymore

Editor’s note from 2023: Jeremy Talfer Nell has proven to be exactly what we all suspected him to be - a deranged, hate-filled, holocaust-denying imbecile and conspiracy nut. And his simps - particularly “Doctor” (lmao) Jonathan Witt - have proved themselves to be exactly as foolish, laughable and insignificant as they’ve always appeared.

I’m angry. It’s the whole reason I’m writing this, and I’m hoping that the writing process helps me to let go of that anger and to find something redeeming in the source of that anger.

I’m angry for a couple of reasons - one personal and one societal. The personal reason is that I was used as a metaphorical punching bag (and a punchline) by a local YouTuber. But this bruising, maddening encounter is emblematic of a much deeper societal problem - we’re losing the ability to have civil and productive conversations with disagreeable people.

The identity of said YouTuber is beside the point. If you really care you can google around and find it. For convenience, we will call him Bargain Bin Zapiro, or BBZ for short (with apologies to the great Jonathan Shapiro).

BBZ happens to be a member of the local ALT-Right clique, but he could just as easily have been a member of the “woke” Left. We happened to be arguing about the pandemic, but we could switch that out for an argument about whether JK Rowling is transphobic (she isn’t) or whether race is the best axis for social protest in the USA (it isn’t).

The issue isn’t really which tribe BBZ happens to swear blood allegiance to - it’s that he (and countless others on both sides) have adopted a set of tactics that make productive conversation impossible. These rules of engagement have grown out of a deep distrust and disdain for our ideological opponents, and taken together they are driving society headlong to the kind of reckoning that, frankly, terrifies me.

It’s these tactics - a grab bag of toxic psychological tricks and emotional tripwires - that make arguing with “the other side” increasingly maddening, unproductive and corrosive. I’ve tried to pin down these poisonous biases and behaviours and to figure out why these conversations fail so consistently. This list captures at least some of my frustration:

Looming over all these conversations is the malevolent influence of the Gas-Lighter-in-Chief, Donald Trump. It turns out that having a huckster and a malignant narcissist at the head of the world’s largest economy and its most powerful military force has some adverse consequences.

The consequence that’s relevant here is that Trump has poisoned the well of collective global conversation. He has taught both his faithful and his more radical opponents that fighting “fair” is laughably outmoded. The old rules do not apply - only winning matters. Trump is reigning world champion of all of the tactics listed above.

Two dopes arguing about things they don’t really understand

My own encounter with these tactics - the source of my personal anger - is a showcase for both their toxicity and their effectiveness. The whole tedious affair brings to mind Sayre’s Law, but rehashing it is nonetheless instructive.

I had been watching BBZ preening and strutting on social media, high-fiving himself over the depths of his insights on the pandemic (a great example of both pre-existing suspicions and pathological certainty). And so, overcome with irritation, I decided to zing him on the subject, armed with my own pet stats (some zero-sum thinking on my part).

After some sparring that, frankly, reflected badly on both of us, BBZ challenged me to appear on what he rather grandly calls his “morning show” (definitely more catchy than “self-soothing rant to adoring sycophants”).

So, with much trepidation, I prepared my arguments and appeared on the show. Naturally, BBZ spent much of the first 30 mins playing to his congregation by brow-beating and bullying me (classic bad faith & grifting). His behaviour was so obviously repellent that his wife messaged him to tell him to stop behaving like “an arsehole”.

The conversation, to BBZ’s credit, actually improved significantly after that and ran nearly an hour longer than scheduled. As we signed off BBZ was all sweetness and light, with some of his audience apparently suggesting I return for another conversation.

So, in my blissful naïveté, I was blindsided by BBZ’s declaration not eight hours later that he would no longer tolerate my moralistic “preaching” and that I was “woke”. He even dedicated a chunk of his evening rant to explaining the many failings of “woke” people - a class of dangerous fools and moral imbeciles for which I was now a handy avatar. I was, it seems, cancelled. So, double standards, with a generous pinch of victimhood (“how dare that woke prig judge me!’)

This shouldn’t have bothered me. I was warned repeatedly about BBZ and his lack of good faith. Unfortunately, I am cursed with a desire to be liked (or at the very least not disliked). It’s my single greatest weakness. I’m also not a confrontational or aggressive person. Even appearing in that shabby little digital shrine to BBZ’s ego cost me enormous amounts of emotional energy - before, during and after.

Since then I have found myself too eager to snipe at BBZ on social media - the most hollow pursuit known to man. He has noticed, it seems, and has blocked me. I don’t feel particularly special. BBZ, a passionate champion of free speech, is a prolific blocker. Irony, it seems, is long dead.

But this grubby little episode of two nobodies arguing about topics they don’t fully grasp has had one positive outcome - it has spurred me to figure out exactly what is making these kinds of conversations so toxic.

Pre-existing suspicions

It’s obvious that social trust, both locally and globally, is at a multi-generational low point. The Great Recession has a lot to answer for this - particularly because the criminals who caused it escaped largely without consequences, while literally billions of ordinary people suffered. But trust was already eroding long before 2007.

Globalisation is another factor. It may have lifted over a billion people (mostly in Asia) out of literal peasanthood, but it also crushed the life out of towns in the middle of America, England, France and many other developed economies.

We are all slightly richer because of globalisation (because it has made so many things cheaper and more abundant) but, for many people, that small gain has been completely swamped by the misery of long-term unemployment and the collapse of their communities.

Terrorism and the resulting War on Terror have only added fuel to this fire. When the likes of ISIS are stalking the globe on a pale horse, it’s hard to feel safe and secure.

Regardless of what has caused it, mistrust is now pervasive at all levels of society. The world is now divided into two groups: “bad people” who are out to get us and “good people” who are on our side. As such many of our conversations have devolved into exercises in figuring out whether someone is a friend or a foe.

This mistrust is particularly acute when it comes to organisations and experts. The establishment, the government, the elites, the corporations - none of them can be trusted. We can only trust our fellow zealots - for they are pure of heart. This is how a whole section of South Africa has come to believe that an actuary with a chip on his shoulder and too much free time knows more about the pandemic than any of the actual experts.

Trump is a master at exploiting this base instinct. A lifetime of paranoia and grudge-bearing has made him an expert in operating this powerful emotional lever. “Yes,” he says time and again, “you’re right, they are out to get us. They want to defeat us. We need to stop them before it’s too late.”

If you watch my conversation with BBZ (I recommend against it), you’ll notice how his ears prick up whenever he suspects that I am about to express a view that will confirm my allegiance. On gun control, on identity politics, on Trumpism - each time he narrows his piggy little eyes with an expression that says “Aha! I knew you were actually a bad person, and now I have proof!”

And, for my part, I am also suspicious. I do not trust that the zealots from either camp actually believe what they say they believe, or if they’re simply using those ideas as cudgels. In a brawl, it’s difficult to tell who is in the wrong.

Pathological certainty

If you watch a spat develop on social media, you’ll notice that it often kicks off with one side stating what they see as an uncontroversial fact, and the other expressing disgust and derision at this obvious and cynical falsehood. Our opponents aren’t just misinformed, they are either willfully blind or morally deficient. They are either “sheeple” or “nazis”.

Some of this reaction is manifestly cynical. For example, Trump fans (including, you’ll be shocked to learn, BBZ) know that he has bungled the response to the pandemic. But they also know that gas-lighting is particularly effective when deployed at scale (more on that later).

Much of this reaction, though, is genuine. The filter bubbles around our individual media consumption have grown so dense and so ubiquitous that we are no longer able to agree on a shared set of facts.

Added to this, both corporatist media conglomerates (including the likes of Fox and MSNBC), and social media giants have been actively reinforcing these bubbles, feeding the faithful on both sides with hourly helpings of absolute certainty, and scooping off the resulting ad revenues.

It turns out that when people are fed a steady diet of emotionally charged factoids that confirm their pre-existing suspicions, their views will tend to shift to the extremes. This becomes a feedback loop - as people become more certain, our natural confirmation bias becomes stronger and stronger.

Combine this with the arrogance of someone who only ever encounters audiences of adoring fans, and you have the Dunning-Kruger effect in its purest form. Who needs those lying experts, anyway? We are smart enough to figure out The Truth on our own!

And so, when the two sides do collide, both sides are utterly convinced of their dogma. These confrontations now no longer resemble ideological debates - they are more like the early scuffles of widespread sectarian violence, ala Northern Ireland.

I don’t use this religious language by way of analogy - these movements operate as new religions, just as fascism and communism did in the first half of the 20th century. They are complete world views, hermetically sealed and inviolable.

But the most dangerous aspect of this pathological certainty isn’t that it will result in violence - it’s that it does not admit to changes in reality. The pandemic is a great example of this - particularly the USA’s response to it. Like Trump himself, the MAGA faithful are so certain of their inherent goodness and correctness that they can ignore and minimise the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens.

So, you have self-professed evangelical Christians falling over each other to point out that most of the people who have died had comorbidities and therefore “don’t count”. Jesus must be so proud.

You can see this kind of pathological certainty in my conversation with BBZ. He is utterly convinced that the lockdowns saved no lives, and that masks don’t work at all. To dispute these obvious facts of science revealed my true nature: a bad person trying to justify my harmful and self-serving views.

Partisans on both sides view uncertainty as a moral weakness. My unwillingness to express strong preferences on many subjects is an enduring source of derision and mistrust from both sides of any debate.

It’s worth mentioning that pathological uncertainty is also harmful. I am definitely guilty of excessive hand-wringing and equivocating. I am guilty of wanting to find balance where it doesn’t exist. As a child of a broken marriage, I am ever the peacemaker and the people pleaser.

But, frankly, I will take fence-sitting over self-righteous certainty any day of the week. In our rush to be right, we have forgotten the art of listening.

Zero-sum thinking

Zero-sum thinking makes all conversations transactional - someone wins and someone loses. A conversation is no longer a conversation - it’s either an exercise in mutual self-congratulation or an ideological jousting match.

The former has the performative character of large corporate staff meetings. It’s theatre intended to comfort and confirm - the intellectual equivalent of mac and cheese. The majority of BBZ’s guests fall into this category. A few days after our encounter he dedicated an entire episode to a semi-professional Trump praiser (I shit you not).

But it’s the latter “conversation” where we see zero-sum thinking most clearly. In a jousting match, there can be only one winner - there can be no ties. No one gets a participation badge. It isn’t an exchange of ideas, it’s an exchange of blows.

You can see this clearly in the comments below BBZ’s content. A big chunk of his fans are interested only in who is winning. And, surprise surprise, it’s always BBZ.

You can even see this tendency in the pompous payoff line for his channel: “the battle of ideas”. His sycophants and sock puppets on Twitter share this perspective. One informed me that I should be “embarrassed” by my performance, and should keep quiet as a result.

The broader point is that treating all conversations as battles to the ideological death does not result in any good outcomes. If someone always has to “lose”, then a conversation is robbed of its main purpose - exchanging ideas. Fistfights don’t solve social problems.

Bad faith & grifting

When you’re already certain that your opponents are not only wrong but bad, and your main goal is revealing this evil, the result is bad faith on a massive scale.

If all conversations are framed as hand-to-hand combat, bad faith is the willingness to gouge your opponents’ eyes. Bad faith is setting traps, taking quotes out of context, seeing the worst and most damaging implication in your opponents’ words or actions. It’s saying one thing, but meaning another.

Trump is the high priest of the bad faith doctrine. Why bother with the inconvenient details like logic or objective facts when you can bend every conversation to your own ends by simply repeating the same lies over and over again?

Gas-lighting is bad faith in its most metastasized form. If you’ve been caught out in a lie, or said something that even your faithful find repellent, you can just turn it back on your opponents. Trump loves to complain about people being “nasty” or swearing. BBZ has a similar shtick - no insults allowed! - but is perfectly comfortably saying appalling things to people, as in his tweet below:

(Some names may be changed to protect innocent swine)

Like Trump, one of BBZ’s favourite gas-lighting techniques is to quibble about the semantics. If you confront him about one of his positions by paraphrasing him, he will invariably reply with a variation of “I didn’t say that exact thing, so you are wrong and also a liar.” In my case he then declared I was a child molester, by way of illustrating “how it feels when people lie about you”. Always a charmer, our BBZ.

And when you add the powerful incentive of monetary gain to chronic bad faith, you get grifting. If your income depends on monetizing your fans, you need to keep them happy. That means both mac and cheese (“Trump is great!”) and red meat (“Woke people are stupid and evil”). I wasn’t invited for a conversation - I was invited to be dunked on and taught a lesson.

The brocasters fall all over themselves to point out that “the Daily Maverick makes money too”. Sure, but they also adhere to a code of ethics and do risky investigative journalism into powerful people and companies. They don’t sit in a comfortable studio and spout ill-informed vitriol and thinly veiled racism. This is not a difference in degree, it’s a difference in kind. They aren’t even playing the same sport as Daily Maverick - it’s table tennis versus Wimbledon.

Double standards

Holy warriors don’t need to abide by the same rules as their foes. Atrocities are only atrocities when your enemies perform them. The ends justify the means, after all. Such is the corrosive character of double standards.

A great example of this is Cancel Culture. Let me be clear: I think Cancel Culture is a real and increasingly urgent problem, particularly among the doctrinaire Left. But for the brocasters on the ALT-right, it’s just a handy device for illustrating the hypocrisy and stupidity of their opponents.

This is particularly ironic since they are such enthusiastic participants in Cancel Culture. When McDonalds branded their website with Black Lives Matter, BBZ was quick to cancel them from his own diet. When Trump declared war against Goodyear for banning MAGA hats, BBZ was delighted.

It’s not Cancel Culture if we’re doing it, you see. And even if it is, they are the ones who started it, so we’re just giving them a taste of their own medicine.

When you combine double standards with gas-lighting you get a particularly infuriating mixture. This is, after all, a zero-sum game. It isn’t about being “correct” - it’s about winning at all costs.

I think McDonalds was silly and cynical to brand their website with BLM. An enormous, rapacious and amoral corporation cannot whitewash itself (excuse the pun) with a bit of rebranding. But the knee jerk cancellation is just as foolish, cynical and intellectually dishonest as the stunt itself.

Self-pity and victimhood

There has never been a more perfect example of undeserved self-pity than Donald J Trump. A man with more power than any other human being on earth, who has never had to work a day in his life, with hundreds of millions of adoring fans - this is a man with no business whining about his lot in life.

And yet, as we all know, he spends entire weeks moaning about how hard he has it. This tendency is inextricably linked to the other elements of our toxic list. Trump is pathologically certain that he deserves better, that he is doing a great job and that everyone is out to get him.

If he ever feels he has lost a zero-sum engagement, his first reaction is to stamp his little kitten-heeled feet in disbelief. His opponents are obviously bad people - nasty women, uppity black people and lackeys of the Deep State. They are trying to con the American people into believing that he, Donald John Trump, is not the greatest president in the history of the USA (and possibly the world).

This undeserved victimhood has spread like a cancer to both poles of this pointless war, but the Right is particularly charmed with it. A local Twitter user posted a graphic declaring something to the effect that “The Boer is the most persecuted class of person on earth”, complete with a laundry list of grievances whose sheer gall would make a hardened Social Justice Warrior blush. The collective eye-roll that resulted from seeing this graphic very nearly caused a tsunami off the east coast of Africa.

And, of course, our own BBZ has self-pity to spare. He managed, at some point, to get himself fired from a gig with a local non-profit. He is convinced that a shadowy cabal of Leftists conspired to “cancel” him using lies and manipulation. I don’t know (or care to know) all the facts, but the nature of his whining is remarkably reminiscent of his hero.

He is also at pains to point out that he has “lost sponsors” as a result of his views - managing to combine both victimhood and self-congratulatory virtue signalling in one neat package. No introspection needed about why the sponsor cancelled. That’s obvious, they hate free speech and want to censor him. Duh.

The truly great thing about victimhood is that you get to play both sides of the poker game at once. You can be a bully and an edge-lord, you can say appalling things both to and about people, you can literally wish death upon your foes - and then you can bitch and moan about the consequences of those actions.

So you’re the hero in all of this?

Nope. I’m not setting myself up as a paragon. I am not the “good guy” here. At best I am the “mostly well-meaning guy who all too often gives in to his anxiety and/or his ego”. I’m my own worst critic, so trust me that nothing you can say is something I haven’t already said to myself late at night.

And no doubt BBZ has redeeming qualities. One of his cartoons changed my mind about something a long while ago. It had some real empathy in it. But I could not detect any of that empathy in our encounter - only suspicion, rage, disdain, and disgust. I may not have all the answers, but at least I’m open to figuring them out and learning from my mistakes. I honestly don’t think the same is true of BBZ.

So what’s the solution?

I honestly don’t know where we go from here. I think I have a better handle on what is driving this hate train, but I have no clue how to slow it down. I’m hoping with a bit less anger in my life I can work at making tiny contributions to deescalating the situation, and opening up conversations.

Humans only have two methods to deal with conflict - violence (or the threat thereof) and conversation. The fact that the only peaceful method is no longer working properly should worry all of us.

The world is at a critical juncture this year. We should all be trying our best to stop this train - not speed it up. And, yes, that includes not spending another 3000 words moaning about the mean bully who made me sad. If you have a better idea, let me know. I am genuinely searching for one.