So I know this is late, but I wanted to get a full handle on exactly what happened when half the people I know either blew up in outrage or in full support of the guy from google. I have no intention of discussing the actual science behind what he wrote about nor will I take sides, but I wanted to discuss why we saw such vastly different reactions to a memo seemingly written in good faith a few months ago.

For people who already agreed or at the very least empathised with his tone will either be convinced or simply find themselves agreeing with everything he says. As he wasn’t aiming it at the people who already agree with him, he kind of failed in what he set out to do, and I think ironically only furthered his own echo chamber and that of those who agreed with him.

Forming an argument

When we talk to people we disagree with, we often assume prior knowledge for no good reason. Something many people do is to use shortened logical statements with implied premises and to explain what I mean by this, the proper form of an argument uses two premises followed by a conclusion – a syllogism.

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Socrates is mortal

Or

A=B
B=C
Therefore A=C

An enthymeme Is a shortened form of this which assumes prior knowledge or a shared understanding of an idea (this being referred to as a meme).

Socrates is mortal because he’s a man

Or

A=B

B=C

The missing part of this is the point that proves that men are mortal as it assumed this point is common knowledge. In essence what we are doing here is assuming agreement on tonnes of information.

Enthymemes are used by us in order to take shortcuts with ideas we already share with people. For example, say with a particular group of friends you go out to the nearest beach for a party every time it’s sunny at the weekend. Rather than using a more rigid logical statement to explain your intended thoughts (because that would be robotic and weird) you simply tell everyone that the weather looks amazing for the weekend, all the intended recipients understanding the implication of you saying this. However, this can quickly become a habit of not explaining yourself, fine for everyday interactions with friends, not so much when addressing a group of people who may not be as familiar with the concepts you refer to.

This is why the google employee failed in my opinion, to prove any of the points he intended to. If you truly want to convince anyone or engage anyone with an opposing opinion, what you need to do is fully explain your position.

I won’t go into the evidence the google employee used but the economist did a fantastic attempt to explain a better application of the science here I do think this is a bit of a harsh attack to what was said, but bearing in mind how this would have been taken I think this was a fairly measured response.

The main two reasons for people to disagree with us when it comes to forming arguments are either the words we choose or the way in which they are presented.

Which incidentally brings me to the second part of why I believe the memo was so widely rejected by its intended audience.

The language

I see this as a symptom of a further ill, as the language of the two large political divides is beginning to change in our political landscape, we need to accept that ultimately the sides that are forming are being forced further and further apart by their refusal to reach a common ground even in the language they use.

The word racism, typically means “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races” This has morphed into a new form for some people to simply mean “prejudice plus power”

Even this is something that has influenced a middle ground for the dictionary definition of
“prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” A subtle change, but one which is as a result of a general change of emotional connection to the word.

While ultimately I don’t disagree with changing the meaning of words due to word definitions being descriptive rather than prescriptive this is why the minefield is harder to navigate because practically any group can devise new meanings for words and use them in their discourse, driving groups further apart.

In conclusion

So to combat this we also need to accept that there are alternative definitions of the words we use and how others interpret them, and, as a result, change how we present our arguments in a way which makes sense to those who may not agree with us.

If we wish to lessen this divide between the quickly precipitating sides of our communities we need to learn how to negotiate the lexical and logical minefield it presents.