ep4 | Gandhi was a Slytherin

David Barr and Russell Johnson are experts on how we communicate. They’re PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, and run For the Sake of Arguments, a blog exploring how we communicate (and how we fail to communicate, as is often the case).

For episode four of hearingUS, I sit down with them to try to answer difficult questions: What causes us to disagree? What is the role of religion in causing — or repairing — conversational rifts? When do we have a duty to try and communicate with “the other side?” (Listen to episode 4.)

David Barr studies religious ethics with a focus on environmental issues and social/political ethics. He approaches the environment as a social issue.

Russell Johnson studies the philosophy of communication, focusing on disagreement and how people talk past one another. He approaches disagreement as a political, theological, and ethical problem. Russell went to college at a liberal university and worked at an evangelical camp.

tips for communicating  when you disagree

If you need a quick TL;DR of the episode, these are a few of the key takeaways for how we can be better communicators:

  • Enter into conversations assuming your interlocutor has some framework for how they make sense of the world — you won’t look for something you don’t believe isn’t there. You should be trying to understand their framework.
  • Beliefs don’t happen in isolation from one another. A belief system is complex and fragile. To alter it requires skill — realize that changing one belief requires changing a dozen other ones.
  • When you want to persuade someone, don’t just change their belief. Get the person ready to live with a new set of beliefs, if you’re able to convince them. Take care of the person.
  • Realize how complicated the dialog is. Having clear beliefs doesn’t make you more passionate. If something seems clear-cut, maybe rethink it.

For the Sake of Arguments

  • Russell and David started their blog as their interested in politics began to intersect with their studies: How people communicate. The blog is unusual in that it tries to diagnose situations of misunderstanding, rather than taking up any particular political view.
  • We discuss their recent post on “The Hypocrisy Juke.” This is a rhetorical move that shuts down honest debate. An example would be saying, “Don’t protest cop violence when there’s more black on black violence.” This rhetorical move shuts down discussion of legitimate topics.
  • We discuss an article in Washington Post that’s been influential for David and Russell. Its premise: Liberals see America as a melange of social groups. Conservatives see Americans more in terms of their ideologies. Our different framing of who we are makes it hard to have a conversation, even when we discuss the same texts and facts.


  • Words “mean differently.” To some, racism means systematic inequality that has disproportionate impact on one social group. To others, racism means active prejudice based on race. Conversations fail when these different meaning systems clash.

do you have a moral duty to converse?

  • I ask Russell and David whether we have a moral responsibility to try and communicate… even when it feels threatening to do so. Their answer references an approach they attribute to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Communicate in a way that supports your goals. So, if you’re trying to persuade, be persuasive, not necessarily “right.”
  • People in positions of privilege and power may have a moral duty to not stand by when people are communicating or acting in a damaging way.
  • The ethical way to communicate is also usually the most effective way to persuade. That involves actual listening: There are lots of ways to shut down conversations which can lead to potentially unethical communication.

how smart are other people?

  • I note that both sides tend to underestimate the “other side.” Which brings us to the question of… how smart are people?
  • Russell and David actually disagree on this. Russel has an optimistic view of humans. David has a lower view of all people. But they end up in the same place: You have to constantly remind yourself that you are worse than you think and other people are better than you think.
  • Don’t think of others as simple and evil. (Unless you also admit that you are simple and evil.)

marriage equality

  • Similar to with race, people frame the argument differently (“sanctity of marriage” (a natural law argument) vs “marriage equality” (a deontological argument)) and are intentionally talking past one another. It’s about choosing the frame that gives your side an advantage.
  • When framing your discussions, be aware of what your motivations are.


  • We have bad communication habits are informed by a set of metaphors. To most of us in America, argument is a war. We are out to defeat the enemy position, destroy their argument, marshal support for our side. Decide if you really want to win, or if you want to learn.
  • We also have habitual ways (“mythologies“) of thinking about politics and processing things like American history or the environment. We can tell very different stories about the same objetively identical history, and that’s what forms our opinions.

tribal identity

  • There’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon called infrahumanization: People within a self-defined group are quick to identify complex emotions in members of their own group, including nuanced descriptions of motivation. But for people outside the group we describe them in flat, non-nuanced ways. This is very universal.
  • Humans have always had tribal tendencies. People are natural participants in groups. We’ve always thought in this way. Be leery of groups who don’t take this deeply embedded roadblock into account with their strategy.


    • Both David and Russell are concerned about how religion is talked about. There’s an assumption that people are religiously motivated in their political opinions, and that those opinions are beyond reach. In fact, the two systems (religion and politics) have complex interplay.
    • Secular people may tend to see Christianity as complexly bound up with tribalism, patriotism, party identification. But then we look at Middle Eastern people and assume religion is their primary motivator, when in fact their religious beliefs are nuanced too.
    • Religion is a big part of people’s lives but it’s not a big topic politically. In some ways, the 2016 campaign forced religious people to make smarter, harder choices.
    • Donald Trump is a “baby Christian.” He’s done a bad job of appearing to be an evangelical, but 71% of what evangelicals voted for him.
    • Religion went from being a liberal issue to a conservative issue only pretty recently. Karl Rove mobilized religious language to get Bush elected.

Trumpism and regretful Trump voters

  • I’m seeing the most anguish and regret from religious voters.
  • A lot of Christians voted for Trump in the way you take medicine
  • We dive into the question of Trump-ism? What is this new ideology? We should be more thoughtful about what delineates Trump voters / Trump “supporters” / conservatives.

listen to episode 4

Download this episode as an MP3. Or, subscribe to hearingUS and get updated every time there’s a new episode.


Production & Development for hearingUS by Podcast Masters

ep3 | reptiles of the mind

Esteban Arturo and Sam Holton have very different backgrounds. But they share something in common that lets them explore their differences — and maintain a strong friendship. (Listen to episode 3.)

This week I’ll take you on a tour through a civil conversation about friendship, vulnerability, and a love of learning from other people.

Esteban & Sam’s Story

Esteban and Sam are very different people.

Esteban Arturo is a graphic designer. He grew up between Colombia and Fort Myers, Florida. He felt out of place in Fort Myers, but he met a lot of new people who exposed him to new ideas in college. He was never very engaged with politics until the 2012 presidential election.

Sam Holton is getting his masters in finance. He grew up in a conservative Christian household in Frisco, Texas. In college, Sam examined his faith and it became a very important part of his life. His first experience with politics was the aftermath of 9/11.

They first met while studying abroad in South Africa, where they were roommates.

Esteban & Sam’s Relationship

Esteban and Sam were able to have many “intrusive” conversations as roommates.

The conversations went deep. Early in their friendship, Sam asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” But both men felt they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The key? A humble desire to learn.

“Why wouldn’t you want to access knowledge that people have? Why wouldn’t you just want… to learn from them?” —Esteban Arturo

Esteban and Sam practice a level of honest and open listening in their relationship that is almost unheard of in today’s political climate. The U.S. Presidential election is a zero sum game and no one wants to concede a single point, so most people don’t enter political conversations planning to listen or learn.

“There’s always something that I’m wrong about. I’m always going to have something in my perspective, outlook, political agenda or beliefs that’s wrong.” –Sam Holton

After the 2016 Presidential election…

Esteban felt fear. “I don’t feel the fear to the same degree that I felt it before… but I don’t feel proud.”

Sam felt hurt by Christians who support and believe in Donald Trump. “I don’t think that is a Biblically-backed position to be in. I think that there are a couple things that the Republican platform itself aligns with, but that man doesn’t.” (If you’re curious, Sam didn’t vote for Trump…)

Both parties felt threatened before and during the election, and a lot of fear is still present.

But there is hope.

Esteban is hopeful for a rise of what he calls “independent identities.” He believes that fear will empower the creative community to function as independent identities and create a stronger impact.

Sam is hopeful that we might be one step closer to restarting. The clay of the United States is getting crusty and crumbling, and we can’t put it back together. If you’re sculpting something and it’s not turning out the way you want it to, it’s better to start over.

listen to episode 3

Download this episode as an MP3. Or, subscribe to hearingUS and get updated every time there’s a new episode.


Production & Development for hearingUS by Podcast Masters

ep2 | America showed some onions tonight

In today’s episode, we start (*ahem*) peeling back the layers of the 2016 presidential election. (Listen to episode 2.)

This week I talk to Brad Matthews. Brad and I were classmates at Wake Forest. I spent an hour reminiscing with Brad about our tipsy hijinks at frat parties… and trying to navigate issues we’re sharply divided on. Brad shares with us:

  • his motivations for voting for Trump (and against Hillary),
  • the history that led to these positions,
  • and how the negative portrayal of the average Trump supporter led to a populist revolt.

We’ll also explore the shadow side of pure political dialog: the fact that politics is a sport, and policy is about aesthetics.

Brad’s story

Brad Matthews is a lawyer in Wilmington, North Carolina. We went to college together at Wake Forest University and he is married to another one of our classmates, Katherine.

Brad and I reconnected after Donald Trump was elected President.

The students attending Wake Forest, like many colleges, are largely left-leaning. Brad is right-leaning, and we discuss how we definitely saw each other through a political lens.

Growing up, Brad was influenced by his father and grandfather.

Brad’s father introduced him to sports – Brad’s grandfather introduced him to politics.

I kind of became a Republican at age seven. For whatever reason, I was into politics at a really young age and kinda knew the issues just because we talked about it with my grandfather.

Brad’s political philosophy was also heavily influenced by two political events:

  • The Bill Clinton Trial. Bob Dole was Brad’s favorite Presidential candidate. (In 5th grade, he dressed as Dole for Halloween.) He thought Dole was going to win, and seeing Dole lose to Clinton was frustrating. After the Clinton Trial, Brad felt vindicated, for a little bit, that Clinton was getting in trouble for his misdoings. That started his dislike of the Clintons, and he could never support Hillary after that.
  • 9/11. Unsurprisingly, 9/11 was a huge influence. Brad was a sophomore in highschool and he saw the community unite behind a common goal. He could feel the effects of the event throughout the following decade.

What Politics Are About | For Better or for Worse

There’s a lot more to politics than policy. Maybe there shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there is.

In decreasing order of importance, politics is about

  1. Sport
  2. Aesthetics
  3. Policy

Sports and Aesthetics are the cake of politics – policy is just the cherry on top.

Barack Obama’s campaign succeeded because they understood the sport and aesthetics of politics. None of the the 2016 presidential primary candidates from the Democratic party demonstrated this understanding.

Should it be a sport?

It’s hard to say for sure, but the competitive nature of democracy makes sport seem inevitable under this system.

Brad doesn’t blame the nastiness of this election on the competitive nature of politics. He blames the quality of the candidates. There wasn’t overwhelming support for either candidate, so the best strategy for both candidates was to bash the other.

Brad believes that, if you have two good candidates that people like, then you can have good, competitive sport politics.

Brad & The 2016 Election

If Brad ranked the 10 Republican candidates in the Presidential primaries, Cruz was his least favorite and Trump was his second least favorite.

The negativity of the campaign, as a whole, made Brad want to revolt against the system. He got behind the populist revolt – but not the person, his policy or his candidacy.

Brad wrote a Facebook post after Trump won.

Brad Matthews political Facebook post

America showed some onions

The Democratic party promotes tolerance, but the 2016 presidential election did not clearly demonstrate tolerance.

The narrative of Trump voters as savage, racist bigots frustrated Brad. He made his decision in revolt, not out of support.

You just can’t label half of America, because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton and they liked a more Republican government, as racist and savage … For that ideal to be as widespread as it was amongst the media and mainstream America was not good for democracy.

A good cause

First, I want to plug a charity Brad is involved with: The Boys & Girls Club of America. hearingUS is all about healing, and I want to give our guests an opportunity to promote their causes.

Listen to episode 2

Right click to download this Episode MP3. Or, subscribe to hearingUS and get updated every time there’s a new episode.


  • Boys and Girls Club of America. Donate.

Production & Development for hearingUS by Podcast Masters

ep1 | wagging fingers — get that sausage out of my face

This is the first episode of hearingUS. (Listen to episode 1.)

I’m your host, Bert Phillips. I’m not an expert on politics, and I don’t want to talk to experts on politics.

But I do want to talk.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, I think everyone sort of… woke up. It doesn’t matter who you voted for. We can all agree on one thing: We stand not as brothers and sisters but as a nation divided.

We looked around and saw… there is no… US.

For my part: I want to start building an US. And that starts with listening. hearingUS is a place where we can set aside our polemics and persuasion for 50 minutes and listen. It’s a place to hear the human stories behind our divided nation. 

I’m excited for you to join me.

Claire’s Story

For the first episode of hearingUS, I’m starting with the most basic civil unit: family.

I’m talking to Claire Coward. Claire’s a writer and an English teacher at a private school in Atlanta.

She’s also my cousin.

Claire grew up in in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where she was raised by a hardworking upper-middle class family in a conservative community.

I don’t want to go so far as to say indoctrination… but I do remember inventing the word Demoncraps and being really, really celebrated.

As a student at Clemson University, she was exposed to new ideas. Her beliefs about topics like sexuality, religion and politics were challenged by professors, classes and other students.

For Claire, politics carry weight, but they aren’t what’s important to her.

I think it’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but I think it’s also important to realize that we have real human beings right in front of us who matter so much more than what they believe, and who need other people to help them, and we can help them regardless of what kind of taxes we pay – and I can choose to help someone any day of the week.

When Claire was making her choice about who to vote for – a choice she kept secret for months – she based her decision on which candidate valued human life more.

To Claire, the most shocking thing on the morning after the 2016 presidential election was the hate. The night before, people were With Her and Making America Great Against – the next morning, there was no unity.  

I really think that we had an opportunity as a nation to put those feelings to the test. We want to help all people and we want to unify America – but the next day we can’t even be friends with people we were friends with.


listen to episode 1

Download this episode as an MP3. Or, subscribe to hearingUS and get updated every time there’s a new episode.

Production & Development for hearingUS by Podcast Masters