ep4 | Gandhi was a Slytherin

David Barr and Russell Johnson

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