Three Languages

April 7, 2020 • #

The economist Arnold Kling is a regular on EconTalk.

This interview discussion revisits his 2013 book, The Three Languages of Politics in light of the current political landscape.

In the current media landscape, amplified by the massive expansion of networks and social media, everyone is talking past one another. Not even speaking the same language.

To quote Kling from the interview:

People are not trying to change the minds of the other side, or trying to open the minds of their own side. They’re trying to close the minds of their own side.

I think this motivation to close minds and not seek common ground comes from a lack of fluency in these languages — we don’t understand one another, so its simpler to attempt to damn it, vilify it, and retreat further into your own rhetoric.

As he defines them, the languages are progressive, conservative, and libertarian.

Broadly, the “three languages” try to give a framework around what creates such wide differences in perspective from person to person — what generates the tribalistic “me vs. them” attitudes between folks with differing worldviews. You tend to talk past others if you don’t recognize your own preferred language, and explicitly make an effort to empathize with the other’s perspective. It’s not the specific naming of the categories that’s important, it’s how each filters and prioritizes views along a preferred morality continuum (“political psychology” as Kling refers to it):

  • Progressive — oppressed vs. oppressor
  • Conservative — civilization vs. barbarism
  • Libertarian — liberty vs. coercion

Naturally no person exclusively and cleanly speaks in a single language, but these are guidelines to help position where you’re coming from in relation to another.

Listening to Kling’s concepts, I was reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and his framing of moral foundations theory.

I recently linked to an interview Kling did with author Martin Gurri, the author of the excellent book The Revolt of the Public, which I’m currently enjoying. That book touches on a lot of the same territory as this discussion.