The Illusions of Our Discussions

In addition to the uneven ground on which we stand, the very language we use gets in the way of productive discussion of difference.

Like a house of mirrors or a magician’s performance, what seems to be true in our discussions may not be.

Abstract ceiling pattern reflected in multiple mirrors.
Photo by Ash @ModernAfflatus on

Distortions of meaning can be used intentionally, such as demagogues skillfully plying rhetorical fallacies for personal advantage.

However, just as great a threat is the natural, and largely unconscious, operation of distorted language.

Critical study of human communication can help us better understand these distortions by considering the operation of ideology, which is itself an idea that is not always as it first appears.

Most commonly, ideology is understood as the what of our ideas—the content, such as liberal or conservative ideology.

Ideology can also describe the how of our ideas—the processes that shape the content of our ideas and how we express those ideas in discussions. And those processes can be difficult to identify and analyze.

Kenneth Burke considers these multiple meanings of ideology in A Rhetoric of Motives and describes the shaping function of ideology:

An inverted genealogy of culture, that makes for “illusion” and “mystification” by treating ideas as primary where they should have been treated as derivative.

A few common ideological operations that contribute to mystification of our ideas include the following:

  • Something seems good but is actually bad
  • Something seems to be caused by one thing but is actually caused by something else (or has multiple causes)
  • Things are more complicated than they seem

The second example speaks to Burke’s “inverse genealogy.”

To call back to the American Revolution example discussed in a previous section, Loyalists would describe monarchical rule as a primary function of the divine right of kings or the pragmatic controlling function of the sovereign to ensure order.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, saw the justifications for monarchical rule not as primary ideas but as illusory and derivative justifications for the undemocratic usurpation of the people’s will.

Hand holding a clear crystal ball showing inverted reflection of surrounding trees.
Photo by Rahul Pandit on

Sometimes it is easy to see the bad effects of ideology in the arguments of those we oppose, but the pitfalls of language can occur on any side of an argument, including our allies and our own.

Part of our problems is the way we talk about our problems. Encouraging dialectical engagement of multiple views can help us avoid those pitfalls.

When considering viewpoints, especially our own, the following questions can help point us toward more productive dissensus:

  1. Does the viewpoint mention points that disagree?
  2. Does the viewpoint fairly summarize those views that disagree?
  3. How does the viewpoint engage disagreeing views—if it engages them at all?

Better Disagreements → Many Purposes → Uneven Ground → What Seems to Be