Libresco on “Having Better Fights”

Rarely, if ever, does Patheos, a wide-ranging site dedicated to “hosting the conversation on faith,” have to help one of its writers relocate from the atheism section to the Catholicism one. Yet that’s precisely what it had to do in the case of Jewish-secularist-turned-Catholic Leah Libresco, who writes the Patheos blog “Unequally Yoked: A Geeky Convert Picks Fights in Good Faith.” Libresco’s announcement of her conversion in June of 2012 took many of her readers by surprise and brought her a great deal of media attention, including an appearance on CNN.

I only learned of Libresco a few weeks ago, and as I was reading through some posts by and about her I came across a video of a talk she gave last March at Chicago Ideas Week entitled “Having Better Fights About Religion.” I immediately felt some kinship when she mentioned her background as a debater and her tendency to be “a little too pugilistic for her own good.” Chris and I have been friends since serving together on our high school’s debate team, and I can certainly sympathize with the fact that there sometimes seems to be a tension between having fun arguing with people and wanting to build bridges and bring everybody together. I have a strong, reflexive impulse to play Devil’s Advocate whenever anyone makes a confident assertion about anything, but I also want people to think I’m a nice person! What to do?

I like to think that the tension is really an illusion, and that my love of argument serves my love of getting people to agree with each other by helping to illuminate areas of common ground and to get to the bottom of what a given disagreement is fundamentally about. It was great to hear Libresco articulate this and to describe “all debate as being about building a more accurate model of reality.” She critiques the mindset that sees argument as a sport, and explores various ways in which we can have “better arguments” that are structured so as to make sure people “lose the ones they ought to lose” (she describes her conversion to Catholicism as the best time she’s ever had losing an argument).

The video offers a number of highly practical tips for engaging in more productive disagreement, something we at RM are always on the lookout for. Chief among them is the concept of an “ideological Turing test”, which Libresco borrowed from George Mason economist Bryan Caplan for an experiment on her blog. The idea is to have people answer a series of questions as if they subscribed to some belief system to which they really don’t, and to see if others can identify whether or not they’re who they say they are. Libresco’s example involved theists and atheists trying to impersonate one another, but the same setup can be used with people who belong to different political parties, etc. Her observations about what makes for a good Turing test are worth listening to in full.

Her talk is also really funny, and belies the stereotypical image of bridge-building and consensus-finding as dry, humorless tasks that are far more boring than the fun times being had by the partisans (just think of the contrast between Paul Krugman’s centrist punching-bags, the “Very Serious People,” and his own colorfully provocative brand of liberalism). I hope to write more in the future about why the “unfunny moderates/hilarious everybody else” dichotomy is a false one, but suffice it to say that Libresco is living, breathing, joke-cracking proof that wit and openmindedness can – or perhaps must! – coexist.

Now go watch the video.

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