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When the Juice is Not Worth the Squeeze: Distinguishing between Productive and Unproductive Conversations | Righting America

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

In this third post about my forthcoming book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, I want to address the issue of how we can judge when climate conversations are likely to be productive and when they are over before they’ve even begun. My book primarily focuses on the rhetorical features of religious communities in relation to climate change and communication strategies for engaging them in conversation. While the vast majority of people I interacted with during the course of my data collection were open and willing to having conversations, some were less welcoming. In Chapter 2 of the book, I dedicate a short section to “A cautionary tale,” where I detail an interaction with a committed skeptic.

Because my research aimed to engage all types of people in climate conversations, I continued my conversation with this person far longer than I suggest others should engage people who exhibit similar characteristics. Based on that conversation, I outline in this post three primary markers of unproductive conversations. These features indicate that continuing to engage might not be worth the effort and may even backfire by providing the dialogue partner more ammunition for their skepticism towards environmentalism.

The first characteristic of unproductive conversations is the deployment of gatekeeping techniques. In my conversation with the hostile separator, they first asked me to solve a riddle about a tea party where people stated one thing about themselves. The separator continued that they would not engage with me about their views on the environment until I could determine “who is the Christian, who is the Environmentalist, and who is the Mad Hatter?” Even after I attempted to answer their riddle, they criticized me for not locating the correct answer, which was that there was no Christian or Environmentalist present. I could not follow the point of the riddle that the separator intended, but the riddle did function to derail us from the topic of the environment. Using gatekeeping strategies is also a feature of the Cornwall Alliance, an exemplar separator that I analyze in my book. In an interview with The Guardian CA President Calvin Beisner asked journalist Leo Hickman to read book Resisting the Green Dragon in its entirety before agreeing to the interview. When gatekeeping techniques are used, it likely means that the dialogue partner is not interested in a true, genuine conversation at all. Instead, those strategies may be used to unfairly test their dialogue partner and put up roadblocks to the topic at hand.

The second characteristic of unproductive conversations is the use of insults and ad hominem attacks. Even if people hold strong opinions about an issue, using insults, ridiculing others, and attacking people’s characters are rhetorical choices that should be avoided in productive conversations. In talking to the hostile separator, they used frequent insults such as calling my questions “ill-defined” and “leading,” and they accused me of being biased against Christians. Furthermore, they argued that my requests for conversations were part of “a trap” to “shame” and “force” people into “government regulated environmental compliance.” In starting a conversation with someone who holds these aggressive and overt views, I opened myself up to having to defend my integrity and intentions, again derailing the conversation away from environmental topics. If our dialogue partners react in this way, it is a likely sign that the conversation may quickly “devolve into elitist rants” or into “dueling ad hominem attacks and counterattacks” as Leah Ceccarelli warns. Instead of taking the bait and responding in kind, it would be more productive to find a different dialogue partner.

The third characteristic of unproductive conversations is engaging with someone who has a closed mindset. People often disagree on topics but can still engage in conversation. The key is that both parties must agree to rules of engagement (whether stated explicitly or not) to have a healthy back and forth, be respectful, and listen to one another’s perspectives. If people enter the conversation with a closed mindset, they may dominate the conversation, lecture the other person, and hear instead of listen. Former Vice President Al Gore recently visited UNLV’s campus and described some climate skeptics as reading from a “teleprompter.” This characterization is similar to Riley Dunlap’s assertion that some climate skeptics have their “minds made up” and cannot be reached through any means. Communicating with committed skeptics may look and feel like a “real” conversation, but instead, it more closely resembles someone reading from a pre-programmed script, which will not to lead productive engagement.

Similar to other scholars of climate change communication, I advocate that some dialogue partners, such as committed skeptics, need not be engaged or take up our rhetorical attention. For example, Karin Kirk argues that some people, whom she calls trolls, will never change their minds on climate change, and so we should focus on those who are more open and willing to engage. Of the nearly 50 people I had conversations with during the course of my book project, I only had one negative interaction with a committed skeptic. While there were certainly other committed skeptics who came across my calls for dialogue partners who chose not to engage with me, this lone interaction gives me hope that there are far more people that are willing to engage in conversation than “trolls” who are closed-minded. While we should keep dialogue and rhetorical listening at the forefront, we should also selectively attend to those who are truly open-minded and offer the most opportunity for productive discussion.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.