Turi: today we’re absolutely thrilled to be talking to Ian Leslie. He is a writer, journalist on psychology culture and technology, and he’s the author of three acclaimed books on human behavior. Born liars about why we lie curious about the value of curiosity and conflicted one of the clearest and most insightful books I’ve read on the value of disagreement and also how to do it.
Polarization is at the very heart of what we’ve covered on the, on opinion podcast in has all sorts of fascinating insights as to how best to use it to our advantages in. Thanks so much for joining us.
Ian Leslie: Thank you very nice to be here.
Turi: And I think I’d like to kick off with what I think is the key.
Strongest insight of, um, of your book, which is that some types of conflict, not all of them, but some types of conflict are in fact extremely beneficial, both to us as individuals and to us as societies. Can you. It seems sort of counter-intuitive can you give us a view as to why?
Ian Leslie: Yeah. And it was counter to my intuition at the beginning of this project, you know, I thought I was going to be writing a book about how to avoid toxic conflict, which, which really kind of merges into, you know, how do you avoid conflict?
Um, the more I thought about it. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that whilst toxic argument and toxic conflict is a problem. Uh, and as a society, it’s actually a kind of, it’s a minor problem compared to the avoidance of conflict, which, which of course it’s related to, you know, if we think of conflict as this thing, that inevitably goes bad.
Uh, and we have lots of evidence for that all around us on social media. TV and elsewhere, then we’re even more likely to avoid this thing, which we already find quite stressful and uncomfortable, open disagreement, uh, and, and, and, uh, an argument. Um, and yeah, I came to think of that. The avoidance of it is actually the real, uh, the, the fundamental.
Problem here, because when you avoid conflict, uh, you tend to all sorts of things, go wrong. Your, your, your relationships actually. Tend counterintuitively, as you say, tend to, uh, corrode, um, uh, and weaken over time. Um, you’re you, you, you become, as, as groups, we become less good at taking decisions. Um, and, and, and, uh, getting to, to insight into truth and we also just become less, less creative, less innovative. Um, so yeah, in the, in the, in the first part of the book, I really kind of make the case for good constructive conflict. And, and, and I, I look at, you know, I talk about why it’s good for relationships, why it’s good for our thinking, um, and why it’s good for our creativity.
Turi: So here in the, in the midst of, um, kind of wall to wall coverage of polarization and the fracturing of polities between left and right. And, you know, kind of the sectarianization of America though, what the deep, deep cracks that’s, for example, Brexit or even lockdown has sort of, uh, wrought across the UK social landscape. You’re there saying the problem is not that we have too much conflict is that we’re actually avoiding the right kind of conflict. Is is that right?
Ian Leslie: Yeah. And, and, and a lot of the things that we, we worry about quite rightly when it comes to polarization or, you know, in inverted commerce, cancel culture. So on they’re, they’re, they’re best seen as ways to avoid conflict rather than just conflict. You know, it’s not a conflict it’s bad is that we’ve we’ve event. We’ve sort of come up with. These ways of basically shutting it down, um, and, uh, you know, uh, a shooting match, uh, a kind of, sort of trench warfare that that’s not, that’s not actually, um, that’s not engaging in argument and disagreement. Um, which is what we need to do. So the alternative to polarization is not everybody getting along and everybody agreeing with each other, you know, that that would, that’s not gonna work either in first of all, it’s unrealistic.
Um, but also it means that you miss out on, on the immense benefits of, of disagreement and argument. Turi: So there’s a, there’s a piece in your book where you w I think many of us have a view on sort of. The totalitarianism of some elements of cancel culture. Um, and no question, that’s about shutting down conversation, but you also talk about sort of the performative elements of conflict or disagreement on social media in this really, again, a counter-intuitive where you say that, that the kind of fights that you see taking place on Twitter, right?
They’re not really fights. They’re actually more, if it’s fight versus flight, they’re much more a flight mechanism. That’s sort of a refuge into sort of tribal protectiveness. What is it? There’s, there’s something strange going on here that you point to, which I think feels very right. Ian Leslie: Yeah. That, that the more about, um, Refusing to engage with my opponent’s arguments because to do so, would, would, would acknowledge the possibility, even if it’s a 1% possibility that I’m wrong in some way, or that my point of view might need modifying. Um, if you can characterize your opponent as legitimate and poisonous, then you don’t have to think about that. Um, and. And, and you can condemn them publicly in a way that wins you, the app probation and approval of those who already agree with you. Agree with you. So all this supposedly toxic conflict that we see on, on, on Twitter is a sort of a SATs conflict.
It’s fake. It’s not real. Um, it’s, it’s really about people turning to their own site and saying, we’re right on this aren’t we. Turi: And that that intuitively intuitively feels right to me because it is one kind of help, but feel the sort of cowardice implicit in this kind of aggressive group mob behavior that you find on social media that is something cowardly about it.
I love that this description of yours is sort of it’s it’s flight rather than fight. It’s not real conflict to do that, therefore, to make that link, um, you’re describing conflict as something quite specific. Can you help us see what I suppose is a form of engagement, a form of a form of discipline around disagreement.
Ian Leslie: So I range across a few different types of, of conflict and argument, but, um, I think one, one way of, of defining it in terms of, you know, engaged argument or engaged conflict is, is what I was just talking about, which is an argument where at least a little bit of me is willing to, to change.
Position, you know, to acknowledge the possibility, even if I think it’s a very slight one or a big one, you know, whatever it is, the possibility that I might be a little bit wrong about this. Um, that is when you that’s that’s, when you, I think you could justify the term an engaged, uh, uh, conflict and, and, and proper art.
Argument. Um, if you’re not, if you don’t have any of that, then really it’s just, it’s just performative, you know, and it, it’s just about being seen to win an argument and we put such a great emphasis, you know, culturally speaking and this predates social media, but it’s been sort of. Enhanced and accelerated by. We put this huge emphasis on being seen to win an argument. And, and w we’ll all our terms for argument, you know, debate, um, uh, an argument itself come tinge with this. Flavor of, of combat, uh, in which it’s this zero sum game in which, you know, somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to lose us. That’s what a debate club is.
That’s what debating competition is. That’s what we know when we stage a debate or the Oxford union, whatever it is. And the people vote at the end. It’s like, who won? Who lost? I mean, That’s fine. It can be entertaining. Um, so I’m not looking, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this, but, but don’t mistake it for a minute with, with the kind of debate and argument, that’s going to lead to new insights and, and, and interesting changes of perspective.
Turi: I want to come back to this and, and bring in Socrates to bolster as you yourself do to bolster that argument. But before we jump in that, what I’d love to, with your help go through some of the areas in which you’ve shown how valuable. Conflict actually is I’m. I want to start with children and their parents and couples. Can you, can you go through some of the research which shows how valuable conflict is that? I think you show that, um, parents and children who argue are often considerably better adjusted, and those who don’t.
Ian Leslie: Yes. Um, so there, there, there is some evidence that, that, that as you say, that the parents, the families where the children argue, argue with their parents, where there is, and this is important, important condition, where there is a strong bond of, of love and, and trust within, within the family, which isn’t true of all families.
Unfortunately. You know, just to, to speak the, the obvious, um, yeah. Where, where that, where that is the case, then argument is actually, you know, leads to two. Children being happier and do better at school. Um, and, uh, there’s a, there’s a greater body of evidence, uh, the same, you know, in the same direction, um, for couples, um, where it is, it’s actually the field of relationships. Studies is really, really interesting um, and in, in that field that they used to think, they used to think that, um, the kind of conventional wisdom was that couples.
Who want to have a healthy, satisfying, and happy relationship, um, are the ones who, um, who just basically avoid all kinds of heated conflict and, and any kind of anger, any kind of blaming behavior. Um, and really, um, just either just get along and agree on everything or when they do have differences, uh, differences of opinion, just talk them through very kind of calmly and clearly, you know, talking it out. And that’s still the, kind of the conventional wisdom in when you talk to, to, you know, you read. Uh, acne aunts or, um, you know, relationship experts in inverted commas. Um, but actually there is a big and growing body of evidence that the couples that, uh, are quite quick and ready to get into argument and including heated, quite emotional argument are the ones who are more likely to stay together. Um, and the ones who were more likely to be satisfied in the relationship and the ones who are more likely to solve problems. In that relationship. Um, so I’m yeah, I just thought that was a, it was a really fascinating and suggestive line of research, which shows that actually conflict, including emotional, uh, quite sort of, um, uh, heated argument is actually, uh, over the long-term is that strengthens relationships rather than weakens them.
Turi: And that’s the case also with work cultures, isn’t it. You have a wonderful example of the most successful American airline. Could you walk us through it?
Ian Leslie: Oh yeah. So Southwest airlines, which is basically the most successful airline ever. Cause it’s, it’s been. Profitable, um, throughout it’s, whatever it is.
I can’t remember, 30, 30 a year, um, existence, and it’s been much less subject to the kind of swings of in, in fortunate than, than other airlines. Um, and, and a big reason that it’s been so. Uh, successful is that they are, uh, they’re very good at turning around planes on the ground, you know? So when a plane lands, they’re able to get it into shape to make another flight very quickly.
Um, basically if you’re in the airline industry, if you’re, if your plane is on the ground, it’s not making any, any money. Um, so the more you can get that plane into the air with, with passages on it, the quicker you do that, the more money you make, um, And the reason it’s one of the reasons it’s hard to, to, to do it quickly is that it requires a lot of coordination amongst different parts of the, uh, different staff in the airline.
Right? So, so, so the cabin crew and the, and the baggage staff and, um, the pilots and. In, in it turns out that in most airlines, certainly this is true when this study was carried out sort of 10, 15 years ago. Um, they all hate it. You know, there’s a huge amount of, um, competition and, and, uh, hierarchical kind of policing, um, within these airlines is they’re incredibly kind of. Political. So the guys on the ramp hate the guys who do the baggage hate. They hate the, the cabin crew and the cabin crew, and the pilots like to assert themselves as, as the top of this hierarchy all the time. Um, and that really slows down unsurprisingly, um, the coordination of these, these complex tasks, um, and Southwest have been absolutely head and above, you know, head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to.
Carrying out these tasks because they have a culture which is much more, um, collaborative and much more open. And one of the things they, they are very. Clear about is that when tensions do arise within the organization and that’s inevitable, then you have it out. Um, you, you, you know, and you have, they actually call them co come to Jesus meetings, um, where the, the, the two size in, in a, in a. The NASA dispute are brought together and, and you just absolutely bare yourself. And you say, this is why I I’m getting upset about this is what I think is going wrong. And I don’t think you guys are, uh, uh, doing well or don’t think you’re helping him. And, um, and that, that tends to, that tends to resolve it.
W w w what happens when you don’t have these kind of open disagreements and these kind of almost, you know, fairly kind of confrontational disagreements is that the, the conflict doesn’t go away. Of course, it just becomes submerged into office politics and passive aggression. And, and that is what ultimately is very corrosive to the relationships in your organization. And indeed in the home, you know, it’s the same. It’s the same principle. If couples aren’t having their arguments out in the open, then their feelings about it. Each other just becomes kind of submerged into, into passive aggressive, passive aggression and bitterness and resentment. Um, and that’s the kind of thing that can end the relationship.
Turi: There’s another, another lovely example that you have in the book, which is close to my heart. It’d because I like, I love Wikipedia and we were also with Parlia building something very similar, but, um, A study was done on Wikipedia, which is a very fractious community of tens of thousands of, um, highly opinionated, quite precise people trying to build out this giant encyclopedia of the internet and the study was done.
I think when, what you said, which you said that the more polarized the teams on any given subject let’s take Israel, Palestine. Um, goodness knows universal basic income, et cetera, but the more polarized the teams were that were building that page, the better, the quality of the page. So here, you’re sort of flagging two key pieces, which you, which you bring up later in the book as well, which is that things work well. The outcome is better when there’s lots of disagreement, but it is managed in a way which is sort of shoulder to shoulder. Forward-looking in the, all in the service of a common project.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, exactly. And, um, you know, w when there’s, when there’s a, a clear collective goal, um, then you can actually really turn up the, the conflict and, and, and it, and it stays, you know, it’s, it’s really productive. Um, so you, you could have a lot of disagreement about something as long as you’re all agreeing on, basically why we’re here. Um, so, so Wikipedia example is, you know, it’s, it’s an unusual example. It’s not, it’s not going to reproduce simply to all sorts of organizations, but as a model, it is interesting, you know, they’re, they’re, they have a very clear goal, which is, can we make this page.
Uh, as good as possible. When, when you have kind of teams of editors who are effectively very aligned with a particular side in a particular ideology, and they really kind of argue over every point, but they’re arguing over every point with the view to ultimately making this thing work as a, as a good page and getting a good score because Wikipedia rates all it’s. Pages in terms of quality, then actually you get really, really good pages because every point has been gone over and argued each way and, and the other, um, uh, and, and the arguments have been honed, all the kind of assumptions that everyone’s making have been kind of unearthed and examined and, and held up to the light.
Um, and. The, the, the position that they get to at the end of the argument is much more stronger and balanced than if either one of them had, had, had done the page, but by themselves,
Turi: I don’t, I mean, they’re essentially. Repeating, um, on a volunteer basis, the process of scientific review aren’t they, in which, um, a researchers will come up with an idea, test it out, produce a report, and that people will go out for peer review to be torn to shreds by, um, a jury of equally opinionated and equally clever and, and, and, and, um, uh, and accredited. Peers, there’s something going on here. I feel like we’re also talking about the, an ideal form of democracy, an ideal form of debate inside parliament, in which everybody is facing in the same direction, all for the greater benefit of either the science or the country. Um, and, um, bringing the strength of their opinions. Um, the strength of that strongly held from tribal, perhaps incorrect opinions to bear to improve the, the, the, the end outcome.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, exactly. Um, and you know, I think it’s. Well, one of the kind of myths about, about good disagreement, I think is that we need to kind of, we need to take the emotion out of this and make, uh, you know, the, the, the problem with.
Disagreement and argument is that it just gets too emotional and we stop being rational. Um, and, and the, the implication, and sometimes it’s, you know, explicitly stated like this is that every disagreement should be like a kind of Oxford seminar where, where we are discussing these matters as if they’re kind of, you know, Abstract, um, matters philosophical disputes that we’re having and trying to get to the, to the root of it. And is that the kind of ideal model of, of, of, uh, political disagreement or any kind of disagreement? Um, no, I don’t think it is. And the, the Wikipedia example is, is, is interesting in that respect it’s it’s because both those sides cared about their point of view. Um, passionately, um, whilst at the same time, recognizing that there were serving a greater goal here, that they were able to collectively produce such, um, strong pages.
Um, and yeah, so, and again, you know, w with, with couples and in, in, in relationships, If you are just discussing your differences, very calmly. And clearly you’re not really getting to the truth of what each other thinks and feels. And yeah, and this was, this is the key to it. This is why. The couples that do have quite heated arguments as a matter of, of, of habit. Uh, w when you’re in an emotional and heated argument, you’re really kind of seeing the truth about what the other thinks and feels. And to a certain extent you are understanding your own what you, what you, the truth about yourself. You know, sometimes it’s only in an emotional, heated argument that you actually say and think stuff that. You hadn’t really surfaced before. Right. Um, and you know, it was one of the psychologists who studies relationships said to me, conflict is information. Um, in, in, in a conflict you’ll get, you’re getting a glimpse of. Another’s heart as well as their mind. Um, and as I say to a certain extent of, of, of your own, um, and so I think you need that kind of emotional motivation in order to really drag those, those kind of extra answers of, of insight out of each other. And that’s what, and that’s part of it. What, what makes the disagreement, uh, powerfully, uh, truthful or insightful one?
Turi: So here’s for me, one of the other key, key insights, beautiful insights of your book and deeply comforting insights too, which is that the worst parts of our thinking and our behavior, our tribalism, our cognitive biases, uh, um, uh, the speed with which we raise ourselves to anger and rage and outrage and everything else, all those things. Bits of our cognitive, uh, all the, all our cognitive tools, some of the worst of them when marshaled with the same goal in mind, whether it’s keeping our relationship on track or finding the right approach to X policy or Y policy or fixing the Wikipedia page. So one when the goal is shed and two, when the rules of engagement have been agreed prior, all those cognitive flaws come into their own.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. Um, and this is really something that I, um, I learned from the, the, uh, Evolutionary psychologists, dance, berberine and Hugo mercy. I’ve ever written a great book called the enigma of reason, which I recommend. Um, and they kind of restart with this question, which is if the capacity to, if the human capacity to reason is so important to the inadvertent, common success of our species are all kind of.
Dominance on, on, on, on the planet and so important to, to be in cumin then how come it’s so badly flawed? Um, how can we have these biases in our reason, the foremost among them confirmation bias, right? W which is the tendency to only look for evidence for things that I already believe in. Rather than looking for evidence that might disconfirm what I believe in, um, that that would seem to be, that’s a pretty huge problem for a rational species. So they identify this interesting, uh, question and their answer for it is that we’ve been looking at reasoning the wrong way round we’ve we we’ve, we’ve been thinking of it as this kind of, um, Quality of the individual mind that enables us, that enables the individual in magnificent isolation to reason, their way to profound truths.
And, but actually reasoning is a group function. Reasoning is basically a social skill. And it evolved, uh, in order to help us make arguments. Um, and that it’s in the exchange of reasons and arguments that, that enables humans to cooperate. Um, and, uh, you know, in order to achieve things and it’s really our capacity for collaboration and the cooperation is what really sets us apart. You know, we’re not particularly. Strong. Um, we’re quite weak. We will pretty weak, competitive than Neanderthals. Um, but we, but we are very good at cooperating with each other. And, and, and, and haven’t been able to, uh, to have this kind of ability to, to, uh, work out what the best thing to do is buy through the exchange of arguments is enormously. Beneficial. And so what, this is really interesting, the point of which this becomes really fascinating is the point of which they say, well, under that condition, confirmation bias is suddenly not a flaw. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Because in a, in a group of people where everybody’s trying to make the best case for, for, for what they believe in it.
And everybody’s trying to knock down the other arguments, a process of kind of Darwinian selection takes place where the weakest arguments get knocked out quickly and only the strongest arguments survive. Right. So, and this is obviously, you know, It doesn’t always happen like this. We know that the group debates can go very, very wrong, but when it’s functioning well, that’s, that’s what happens. And that’s why you need confirmation bias. Cause confirmation bias is, is, is it kind of. Your motivation for putting forward. Your point of view, um, adds to the diversity of points of view that are, that are in the group. You know, so if the group gets around and everybody just kind of quickly backs down from their point of view and says, okay, you’re maybe you’re right then, or you actually don’t actually get any debate. So you need people to kind of stick to their point of view strongly. Maybe even a little bit better rationally, you know? And so this is the kind of paradox that in order for a group to make good rational decisions, at least some of the members should be acting a little bit irrationally.
Turi: I love this. Um, and can I repeat this back to you just to make sure that I’ve got it Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber articulate a view of rationality of reason, which is not what their argument would be. Reason is not, did not evolve in the service of truth. Reason evolves in the service of arguing. Arguing is the key and important thing that we do with reason. It’s not, we’re not trying to get to the truth as individuals because our greatest, um, capacity is in collaboration. Therefore, what we evolved was a tool reason, which helps us collectively get to the truth faster, not individually get to the truth faster. It’s sort of rationality in the service of the truth of the superorganism. But in the service of purely the argumentative stubborn, big edit argumentative skills of the individual.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. Is that what you exactly? You’ve put it much more clearly than, than I just did. Um, but yeah. And so it, obviously it makes you think differently about the whole thing. Um, and you realize that actually it’s good. Not to back down from your point of view too quickly. Um, it’s, it’s good to kind of stick up for, for, for your, your, your opinion, quite strongly to be put quite, quite passionate about it. Partly because that motivates you as I was saying to, to think of more and better reasons to remember some key information or, or to come up with a fresh argument.
So you’re just kind of. You’re generating more and better arguments when you are emotionally motivated to do so. So, so having some emotional investment in this is good. Right? And, and, and when everybody’s doing that in the group, you get a much greater diversity of thought. Um, and then you have this kind of selection effect too. Um, and it’s just good to bear in mind when you’re in an argument. It actually doesn’t matter if you are right or not. What matters is if we are right. Um, it matters if collectively we can, we make some progress in, in this, in this debate. Um, Uh, and, and the way to do that is to, is to basically, you know, have two ideas in your head at the same time, which is I’m going to push this as far as I can go, but I’ve also got to realize that ultimately, it doesn’t matter if, if, if I’m right or not, what matters is that we’re making progress together.
Turi: That’s beautifully described. Um, I want to touch on something that emerges over and again, in, in your book, which is the importance of. Trust, and I’m going to kick it off by asking you to explain Eli Paris’s lovely discovery about where the best political discussions take place online. Ian Leslie: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think it was really, um, uh, an aside, but I thought it was a really suggestive one where he was discussing, uh, American political.
This is the guy who kind of came up with the filter bubble idea. Um, um, and he was discussing American political polarization. Um, and how, and how kind of toxic it’sgot and so on. And he said, you know, what I’ve noticed is that, uh, some of the best political debates across red and blue lines, um, happen on the forums of sporting websites.
Um, and it’s because. They have, they know they have something in common, um, that it’s, that they, they also they’re all into the same sport or, or they all support this, this particular team. Um, and when you have, you know, some kind of bond there isn’t to do with a thing that you are. Debating that actually enables you to get into, into the disagreement. The problem with disagreements often is that they just become the disagreement itself. They become all about the disagreement itself and the whole relationship becomes focused on, on the disagreement. Disagreements are much more likely to go better when there is some wider. Relational context for, for, for that, the disagreement, we know that our relationship is not a hundred percent staked on the thing that we are arguing about. And that just enables us to be a little bit looser, uh, and, and, and more flexible in, in, in, in, in the way we argue.
Turi: Um, The second half of your book gives an overview of the 10 key rules for predict productive disagreement, which we’ll flag in the show notes. But can I ask you to tell us the story of Nelson Mandela’s meeting with the general who founded the African a call? Because it talks to so many of these kinds of key rules of productive disagreement, and also talks to them and delis genius, um, in bringing people to the table.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So this, um, this took place in, I think 1993, um, And it was two or three years after Mandela, three years after Mandela had been released from present, uh, from prison and, and he was effectively, he was the leader in weighting of, of South Africa, um, in a power sharing agreement with, with, uh, the. The white government, but preparing for democratic elections at which he was bound to become, uh, as head of the ANC was bound to become president.
So, um, you know, that, that was, that was the direction in which they were headed. Um, And, uh, he faced this rip armed rebellion, um, or certainly the, the very clear and present danger of an armed rebellion from, um, some diehard white South Africans. Um, and. The the, there was this huge rally near Johannesburg, about 15,000 men waving Nazi flags and toting guns. And there was some rabble rousing speakers. And at the climax of this is, uh, Sort of gray head, uh, general Rose to speak, and this guy’s called constant Viljoen. Um, and he was a claimed as, as the leader that that would. Th that would take them to, to a separatist white state. And, and he said, he told the crowd that, uh, you know, we will get there even if it means a bloody conflict.
And this is a very serious guy. So when this guy was a ruthless enforcer, Of white supremacy. Um, uh, it, it was known as a very kind of effective and devastatingly effective, uh, general. Um, so when, when, when, when Mandela saw this, he was somewhat, uh, alarmed. Um, and there were reports at the time that that Viljoen might be able to organize a kind of hundred thousand strong militia. So then Mandela faces this choice. He can, he can have field June jailed for tree treason. I mean, he’s effectively in charge of the machinery of if of state already met Mandela. Um, um, he, and he can, he can use the military to, to crush any, any rebellion. However, if he takes this approach, feel June might become. A martyr to the core as much as Mandela did, right. 20 something years before to, to the back corner. So he’s very aware of that. He’s also not completely sure what the loyalty of the South African military to him. Um, and, and I think more to the point actually for him, he really wanted South Africa to be, you know, he wanted it to be a democracy for whites and blacks and, you know, for everyone. Um, I didn’t want to get there through, through, through violence. So he decides on this different course, rather than trying to, uh, erase the threat of a field gym. He invites him to team. And the, the kind of the pivotal moment of this story is really kind of very small one. Um, But feel, Viljoien gets the message and Mandela wants to see him.
And he’s somewhat surprised that Mandela says, uh, we’re not going to meet at an official residence. We were going to meet at my house in the Johannesburg, uh, suburbs and filled you. It turns out with two or three other retired. Generals and then knock on the door and wait for the staff to open the door. And it’s Mandela that opens the door and Mandela’s, there was a big smile on his face and he says, welcome. Very good to me. You come in and, um, and then he says to Phil, Jen, look, can I, can we just have a chat before we join? The, the, the, the meeting that we’re going to have, can you and I just go off and NC advice, field Jen into his living room.
And, uh, he says, do you take T filter and says yes. And Mandela pours him a cup of tea. Um, and it says, do you take milk? Viljoen says, yes, take milk. Mandela serves in milk. Do you take sugar? Yes, it takes shiver and Mandela adds some sugar. So he, he. Shortly after this meeting, he just, he disarmed, I mean, he ordered the disarmament of his militia without a shot being fired. Right. He, he became part of the democratic process to cut a long story short. Um, and he indeed became a devoted admirer of Mandela. This is a complete 180 degree turn from, from where he was. And. When he talked about why, you know, he turned around so dramatically and decisively. Um, years later, he recalled this, this moment of Mandela serving him T as you know, the moment when something kind of. Shifted in his mind. Um, I just think it’s, it’s a, it’s a fascinating example, uh, in lots of ways, but, but, but one of the, the, the interesting things about it is that, um, in any tense conversation, we’re always. We’re all thinking about what, what face am I projecting here? You know? Um, so, so putting on a good face is something, you know, something we use in everyday conversation.
It’s also got to, it’s used in, in. Sociology is, you know, the, the public projection, um, of personality that, that, that I’m trying to accomplish. Um, and they, you know, they talk about the amount of, uh, cognitive and emotional labor that you’re putting into that projection, even as you are engaged in, in, in a conversation and they call that face work. And, uh, the, the really kind of S skilled, socially skilled, um, disagree, or if you like, um, we’ll work hard at putting in face work, not so much on his own behalf, but on the behalf of the other. So recognizing that the other person might feel might be feeling insecure.
Um, And, and trying to make them feel good about their own status in the conversation is a way of getting them to engage with you. And what Mandela intuited was that field Jude, and really by extension his whole, his whole tribe. If you like was an immensely proud man who felt. Threatened, uh, and who, who, who, who felt that he risked humiliation? Mandela understood that because Mandela is basically a kind of genius of, of social psychology. And so he knew that in order to get field June to really engage with him at all, he would have to kind of put in face, work on his behalf and, and show him that he was. we’re on the same level that Mandela wasn’t going to try and humiliate him or crush him or push him about.
And, and even though it seems like a sort of a, a slight, or a silly thing that the serving of the tea, he was showing him that he was effectively willing to yeah. To, to, to put him. To be beneath him in a way, you know, even though he, he, he wasn’t in terms of power, Mandela was a super, you know, had more power that moment clearly. But he was just saying, as a human being, I will, I will stand here and I will serve your tea because we’re going to have a conversation as, as equals. And I respect you for who you are, even though we disagree on so much. Yeah. It worked
Turi: You end your book with a beautiful image, which is to think of, um, argument conflict as an infinite game. I’d like, if that’s okay to ask you to explain this idea to us, because I think it has an enormous bearing on not just the conflicts that we have in tighter personal relationships. Um, the conflicts that we have, um, Across social media, but actually what the fundamental business of conflict inside democracies inside liberal democracies is really.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So. There’s a book by, I think he’s called James casts of the American academic, and it’s a short and, um, quite sort of philosophical and in a way quite poetic book, about two different types of game. Um, in, in game, you kind of use it in the broadest sense. Um, so he says, look, there are finite games in which the, in a finite game.
There is a winner and a loser. Um, there’s a kind of set amount of. Time. Um, so, so, so a football match is a finite game, right? It’s 19 minutes long and it ends after 90 minutes or 90 something minutes. Um, no matter what happens, and this is penalties, but let’s not get into that. Um, and then, yeah, and then the game’s over at that point and you can win and lose or you, you can draw, but, but basically that’s it, right? That’s that’s, that’s the end of the game as a finite game. The other thing about finite game is that everybody plays it according to a set of rules, right? There’s an agreed set of rules about what you’re allowed to do and not, not do without I see the offside rule or whatever in a, an infinite game.
You you’re basically. Trying to find reasons to keep the game going. Um, so if, if a game of football is a finite game, um, football itself is an infinite game where the whole point is, is to kind of find reason just to keep the game going. Um, but, um, You know, even in that case, actually the two sides, wherever you think of them, seem to all agree that they are trying to keep the game going in some way, even if they have very different views about how, how to, how to go about it. Um, and it’s just an enormously useful model for thinking about all sorts of things, including, um, argument and, and democracy.
Um, you know, the aim of democracy is not to win or lose. Um, so the, the kind of analogy here is an election, right? And election is a finite game where the aim is to win or lose. And there’s a cutoff point where you kind of, you can say, well, somebody won or somebody lost, or somebody, you know, got this amount of seats and somebody didn’t like at the end of a football match, but the aim of democracy is more democracy. You know, the, the, the, the, in a, in an infinite game, you’re always trying to extend the game as long as possible, even if that means changing the rules from time to time in order to keep it going. You know, so democracy has to evolve the institution of football and how it’s played. It has to evolve in some ways, too, because the world is changing. You have to evolve to keep up with it. Um, and, um, I just thought a useful way to think about argument and disagreement. You know, your, your ultimate aim and a disagreement really should always be not to win or lose, but, but to extend, to open up the possibility of further disagreement
I just think there’s infinite game. Idea is, is, is, is a really good one to, to bear in mind in all sorts of ways. You know, the, the point of an argument in a relationship is, is, is open up the possibility of more arguments and that relationship down the line, you know, it’s to keep each other engaged in this ongoing developing, evolving organism, uh, of our relationship.
Turi: What a beautiful way to Andy and I’m tremendously grateful for them just to talk these ideas through with you. It’s been really instructive. Um, I’m quite optimistic. Um, so here’s to many more arguments. All my thanks.
Ian Leslie: Absolutely. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.