Reason Podcast

How To Have Impossible Conversations in Terrible Times

In a new book, Peter Boghossian, one of the perpetrators of the "grievance studies" hoax, outlines how ideological opponents can reach common ground.


It's hard to think of a time when political and cultural discourse has been more polarized. These days, it seems as if even casual conversation has become tougher to navigate than a World War II minefield. Everyone from prospective Saturday Night Live cast members to college professors teaching books on racism to social media folk heroes have been canceled for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and holiday dinners occasion endless columns about surviving political discussions. In today's world, "Can we all just get along?"—the phrase famously attributed to Rodney King after he was almost beaten to death by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991—seems like it's from a totally different universe.

Today's guest, Peter Boghossian, hopes to remedy at least some of today's toxic atmosphere. He's an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and the co-author, with James Lindsay, of the new book How To Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. Their aim is to give us all advice on how to have "effective, civil discussions about today's most divisive issues."

Boghossian talks with Nick Gillespie about strategies to bring people who disagree into useful, productive engagement with one another. They also discuss how Boghossian, Lindsay, and a third scholar, Helen Pluckrose, pulled off the "grievance studies" hoax, one of the biggest and most controversial academic controversies in recent memory. The trio authored 20 fake articles that they say exemplify how political correctness has trumped serious intellectual inquiry in many academic disciplines. These were not subtle satires: One talked about canine "rape culture" at dog parks and another appropriated aspects of Hitler's Mein Kampf in the service of a feminist critique of patriarchy. They submitted the papers to academic journals, with seven being accepted for publication and four actually coming out when they were exposed by The Wall Street Journal.

Is there a contradiction between pulling off the hoax and writing a book about bringing ideological opponents together? And what punishment at Portland State does Boghossian still face as a result of his role in the hoax? Those are some of the questions raised in this wide-ranging conversation about politics, polarization, and intellectual inquiry.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

NEXT: Are We Really Doing the Impeachment Thing Again?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Individualism can simulate socialism by voluntary contracts, where you agree to give some association control over some portion of your wealth and income.

    Socialism cannot even allow individualism, let alone simulate it.

    Ergo, socialists are the constraint and the problem; individualism is the answer.

    1. Great point. Now, how exactly do we force people to be free?
      Because that is the ultimate reason the bad guys will win sooner or later. The socialists can force the individualists to shut up or go to prison, the individualists cannot force the socialists to be free.
      So sooner or later, maybe depending on how soon social media is outlawed, the bad guys will win.
      So I sit here and decide that I am not going to fight it anymore. I will ignore the mob until it comes for me, then leave the survivors to their self destruction.

    2. Individualism involves not letting collective guilt and grievance shape your worldview. Exactly the opposite of where things are going.

  2. Wasn't Portland State U the source material for the classic film: PCU?

    1. "Excuse me, but can you blow me where the pampers is?"
      That movie was amazing. Forgot all about it.

  3. And what punishment at Portland State does Boghossian still face as a result of his role in the hoax?

    The fact that entire departments who accepted the hoax papers aren't being burned to the ground tells you everything you need to know about higher education.

    1. I wouldn't burn them to the ground, but I would relegate them to teaching remedial composition to freshmen for the rest of their careers.

      Wait... that's not fair to the freshmen.

      Sigh. Okay, those departments do have important things to teach. Even victim studies departments. The problem is that they are departments, They need to be split up and sent back to the literature, sociology, and philosophy departments they split away from. The institutions need to stop issuing their degrees.

  4. You can never negotiate with Lefties about their desire to have Socialism take over.

    Luckily, mention some Libertarian positions and watch the other person(s) run away screaming and crying. Reality is hard for them to admit.

  5. "It's hard to think of a time when political and cultural discourse has been more polarized."

    1776? 1860-1865?

    1. 1776? 1860-1865?

      So who is the nominee to be beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor?

      We're not at the level of the 1960s yet. Or at the widespread bombings in the 70s. But we can see the glow on the horizon from here...

      1. It didn't exactly occur on the Senate floor, but I remember a Republican House Minority Leader who was shot -- Steve Scalise -- and several other Republicans who were shot at.

        And while we haven't yet gotten to bombings, we have AntiFa punching "Nazis", where "Nazi" is defined pretty much as "Anyone I decide to punch".

  6. This is a gag, right? It's just a book of blank pages?

    1. Yes, white page privilege.

  7. "Boghossian talks with Nick Gillespie about strategies to bring people who disagree into useful, productive engagement with one another."

    One way would be to get the government, with their regulations, prohibitions and mandates, out of everybody's lives. Once people aren't faced with the possibility of being forced by others to do things they don't want to do, they'll find that opinions they don't agree with are not nearly so threatening.

    1. That is the DO SOMETHING saga; it means "make those people behave the way I want"

      You don't "get along" with that

    2. I don't see government as the sole, or even main, problem.
      It is the weaponization of social media that is causing the greatest discord, IMHO.

      1. "It is the weaponization of social media that is causing the greatest discord, IMHO."

        Hint: If you don't use social media, no one puts you in jail. If you don't do what the government wants, they do.
        Try again.

      2. The very existence of an institution designed to coerce poeple into socially desirable behaviors is itself the problem.

        There is a difference between saying "don't do that", and saying "don't do that" while holding a gun.

      3. Social media just amplified it by commodifying every day political commentary. You can now get valued social points for parroting ideas your friends agree with - the more strongly you voice your support, the more points you get. The cost to gain these points is low, especially if you actually agree with what you're parroting.

        The divisions themselves are about power - both private and government power.

    3. Yes, a thousand times YES!

      Government enables so much nosy busybody interference in everybody's lives, but worse than that, those busybodies weaponize government to the point that everybody else has to weaponize it too,and people spend far too much time defending themselves from government, both re-actively and pro-actively, that minding their own business, both literally and figuratively, becomes unproductive.

  8. "It's hard to think of a time when political and cultural discourse has been more polarized."

    Come on, Reason, one of your own videos pre-buts your claim:

    1. That one time a Democrat from a slave state caned a republican abolishonist on the floor of The Senate.

  9. I think it was about that time that Timothy Dwight, President of Yale, made his most-quoted remark: "Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat, or our daughters, the concubines of the Illuminati?"

    An Internet search confirms that there is a (disused) blog called Concubines of the Illuminati. If I were forming a goth girl band, it's the name I'd choose.

  10. The lack of anyone interested in finding common ground with ideological opponents would seem a key obstacle.

    1. One of the problems with finding common ground, though, is that you have two diametrically opposed principles.

      On the one hand, you have a side who is demanding complete Collectivism.

      On the other hand, you have a side where a lot of people demand respect for Individualism, and while a lot of people on that side are only paying lip service to this, there are nonetheless a lot of people who take Individualism seriously.

      How do you find common ground between, say "Get Government out of Health Care" (which is a what a *lot* of Conservatives and certainly most Libertarians want) and "Medicare for All"? Or, for that matter, "Turn in your ARs and AKs to the Government" and "It's about time we repeal the NFA of 1938 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, and finally get rid of these stupid laws against short barrels and machine guns"?

      The answer could very well be Federalism -- which both Conservatives and Libertarians would be willing to accept, if at least grudgingly -- except that Collectivists aren't satisfied with having blue enclaves: they want to force the entire Nation to do what they want.

      Hence, unavoidable irreconsilable differences!

  11. I actually listened to the podcast and liked what Boghossian had to say. His basic argument is that arguing with facts and evidence is not really how the human brain is wired, and this strategy tends not to succeed. That lines up with other things I've read and observed personally. The book is an alternative approach, highly summarized, based on discovering and appealing to the moral values of the person you are conversing with. If your response is "but leftists have no morals except sending people to the gulag", history might support you but you are probably unlikely to convert any leftists to valuing freedom.

    I added the book to my reading list. For $12 I'm willing to see if I could become a better communicator at minimum, and maybe even improve my ability to influence others.

    1. Does he mention his hoaxes?

    2. Same here. Listened to the whole thing and I’m going to read the book.

    3. You are delusional if you think you can "convert Lefties to valuing freedom".

      They need to find out for themselves. They usually do that moment when other Socialists have THEM up against the wall to be shot.

      1. Imagine trying to convince Pelosi of the errors of her ways.

        Try to convince Sheeple who are not full blown Lefties.

        1. My best friends is a former socialist that I successfully converted to a free-market advocate. He's more free-market oriented than I am these days. Its very possible, but it takes a long time and genuine willingness to examine your own beliefs and blind spots, often before the other person does.

          Not everyone can be converted, but most people are not as locked in to their beliefs as the daily news cycle would have you believe. Most are just operating under their factory settings - whatever their parents or a few influential teachers told them to believe.

  12. In regards to The Hoax revealing that academic departments of invented nonsensical studies are too woke to impartially peer review academic studies: They are not alone. The entire apparatus of The News Media are out only to push their own agenda and proclaim their own narrative. This is nothing new. The myth of the impartial journalist is just that. It is, and always has been a myth. Both Journalists and academics have a long history of being out of touch with reality and bonding tight to their pet theories and prejudices.

  13. Two men enter, one man leaves. Or women, or a man and a women. I don't discriminate.

    1. There are many other potential combinations that you are leaving out, bigot!


  14. I don't have any desire, interest, or anything to gain from trying to talk reasonably with lefties. In my experience, most of them are ignorant of the actual issues and they are incapable of logical, reasoned discourse. Its like trying to reason with a three year old.

  15. “Grievance studies”. Haha. I knew that had to be a thing somewhere!


  16. Postmodern Marxists don't want to find common ground. They want to stamp on your face with a boot - forever.

Please to post comments