Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

Research2BeDone has put his finger on what I agree is the most fundamental problem facing those trying to discuss social justice issues with people who aren’t familiar with the concepts involved: large inferential distances. Inferential distances are those gaps between our knowledge and the knowledge of others that make it hard to convey ideas. The example given over at Less Wrong is:

Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn’t already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam’s razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation.

Similarly, one SJ-oriented friend might be able to convey to another SJ-oriented friend why complaining about the term “cisgender” on the basis that the term is stolen from chemistry is problematic with a single step. They don’t have to explain about the way labels can empower or how words can do harm or how derailing works or what cisprivilege is, let alone privilege in general. They can just allude to all of that shared knowledge and assume it’s understood and believed. For the mathematically minded, all the lemmas have already been shown, and from there the theorem is a one step proof.

But without being able to assume all of the information, ideas and analysis that go into the Social Justice™ system, it’s much, much harder to explain what’s going on. In fact, you can’t do it directly at all. To properly make the argument, some patient and charitable soul would have to start from the beginning, the core axioms, work through all the basic approaches and forms of analysis, arguing all the way that they are legitimate and worthwhile, then showing how they apply to the situation in question, and hoping desperately that they’re still paying attention by the end. And that’s in the best case scenario, where it doesn’t disintegrate into slurs, derailing or unproductive mud-slinging before the explanation is over. Just like in math.

It seems unfair, of course, that in order just to convince someone to stop believing harmful and incorrect things, that much work has to be done. The answer seems obvious, if you already have all of the knowledge, information and assumptions. But from the other side, it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s not rational to find it obvious. Without an explanation that starts with assumptions that are in fact shared, someone who doesn’t currently agree with our fictional Social Justice Warrior doesn’t have reason to believe what they’re being told. Just as so many creationists disbelieve science because it rests on the concept of the scientific method (which they do not accept), and mathematicians dismiss proofs that require unproven assumptions (except the unproven assumptions they like), this non-SJ-er must reject the notion that “cisgender” should be a required part of hir vocabulary. (Much like hir). Note that mathematics and creationism have somewhat different truth values. It doesn’t matter; this is still how it feels from the inside to believe some things and not others.

How do we change that belief? More specifically, “How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other?”

By bridging the gap! Get rid of it entirely, by meeting the person you’re talking to where they are.
The following steps provide a guideline (much of which is laid out originally here):

  1. If you require a baseline of civility or respect for the conversation to continue, make it clear from the outset. In the spirit of “you don’t have to get it to respect it,” you can demand that arguments must be in good faith and that certain words that you feel are harmful and cruel not be used for the duration of the conversation.
  2. Find out how far back the disagreement goes by finding the most basic assumptions you agree on. Best way to do this is just to ask: “Do you agree with this? How about this?” until you figure it out.
  3. Start from there and make your case. Try not to use jargon or specialized language that the non-SJ-er doesn’t use without definition. Step by step, get them from their column to yours. If you find you can’t prove your point from that far back, it’s time to ask yourself again why you believe what you believe.


  1. Obviously, use all the techniques I’ve been talking about. Anticipate counterarguments as you walk them through your case. Argue the best version of their position. Be willing to change your own mind. Don’t insult them, even if they deserve it. Don’t assume their intentions are bad.
  2. Since you’re taking them through a long series of steps, be willing to accept compromise. Be happy if you took them through some of the steps, even if you had to stop there. It’s all a journey.
  3. Similarly, since going through this many steps is hard, see if there are any places to make it easier. Skip nonvital steps. Condense and simplify if you get the opportunity. This will both help your argument and teach you what parts of your argument are required for the rest to stand and what parts are not.
  4. If, in order to agree with you, one or more of their identities might be in jeopardy, be careful. Allow the entire thing to be a thought experiment. Try to fit it in with a more deeply-held identity. Try to help build up a belief structure that will replace the one they’re abandoning. Remember that it may not be “just an argument” to them either.
  5. Being able to construct your own argument from first principles is great. Being able to construct the other side’s is even better. It allows for so much insight into why they don’t agree with you in the first place, which makes you more charitable and more effective when you’re looking to win them over.

The tips might look intimidating, but the important part has only three steps. It’s really that simple. It’s hard to be perfectly persuasive all throughout the argument, it’s hard to make an argument that extensive, and it’s frustrating to do it over and over again. But it is simple. For those willing to do it, arguing with people who have entirely different assumptions is just the task of laying out a path, slowly but surely, from one set of beliefs to another.

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

3 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

  1. Peter says:

    I do research on ideological belief systems. You have come up with a good account of the problem of belief system tenacity and the difficulties of shifting those beliefs. It’s an important problem because we are at a point as a nation in which sharply conflicting worldviews are prevalent in the public and are preventing solutions to increasingly serious problems–ones that threaten to be civilization-ending.

    Let me add a couple thoughts to what you have here. Belief systems are networks of mutually reinforcing beliefs–they are ‘coherent’ with each other (Thagard). Most of our belief systems are submerged–assumptions, notions of evidence, trust in certain information sources, etc. that rarely if ever come into conscious focus. For that matter, people likely pick up most of their belief systems from their environments without being consciously aware of what assumptions they are picking up. A belief system is maintained and reinforced by a person’s communication environment–it all fits together and makes sense because people hear the same coherent structure over and over again.

    Trying to shift people to another view involves either shifting them to another communication environment, one that reinforces a different coherent structure, and / or making an issue of the submerged contents of their beliefs. Arguing with people about something they don’t even know they believe and likely perceive as self-evidently true is a wee bit difficult–particularly because it’s easier for them to conclude you are stupid, crazy, or evil than that the self-evident can be questioned. Also working against you, I suspect, is that simple right-wing views are likely a default view for people with limited cognitive sophistication–they make sense in a way progressive views do not for people who conceptualize the world in a simplistic way. And, even if you make some progress with an individual, they go back to their social context, replete with hidden conservative messages, which will gradually undermine the changes you have struggled to make.

    I think you have a nice roadmap to approaching person-on-person efforts to change belief systems, but I suspect it will yield little overall change–likely not enough to address the crises the country now faces. The missing but essential ingredient, I suspect, is a *social* rather than interpersonal approach to change. That is, you need to give people a long-term social context that offers an alternative to their everyday environment, that reinforces progressive assumptions, and that consistently and over a long time-period gets people to reflect on their assumptions.

    The solution, I suspect, is to develop deliberative communities on a large scale. A simple model for this is: Set up discussion groups to help citizens think through, discuss, and act on the many issues of pressing national importance. The motivation is to do something about truly serious problems at a national scale, to fulfill people’s role as citizens addressing the country’s real problems, first by understanding and shifting their own views and then those of others. The public has a real responsibility for the problems faced by the country because it allows itself to be handmaidens to a disfunctional political system.

    These deliberative communities should actually be non-partisan–I believe the truth will set people on a progressive path, but this is something they need to find themselves, at a pace they can accept. This doesn’t mean that progressive thought shouldn’t be strongly argued for in these contexts, but only that there is genuine openness to the consideration of all points of view and a willingness, as a group, to go to where people are comfortable. The model is that of democratic deliberation / public deliberation, about which much has already been written with respect to design, format etc. The main difference from standard deliberations is that the discussion groups should be long-term, not one-shot. Each discussion group could seed additional discussion groups, as members are encouraged to bring the discussions to a wider audience. Seeding such groups in major cities around the country offers the possibility that they will become a real force for political change.

    In addition, the groups, once there are enough of them, could be organized in a pyramidal structure. That is, you could coordinate millions of people in such groups by a few levels of selection of representatives to groups with representatives from multiple lower-layer groups. Good ideas, arguments, action plans can flow up the group structure and back down to provide leadership and coordination that remains radically democratic.

  2. I agree with what you say regarding taking people step by step through an argument, but I also believe that sometimes people get tied up in their projected identities and form echo-chamber communities that invent self justifying terminology. To me the amount of time/energy/blog-space taken up by people defining, explaining and bemoaning ‘cisgender privilege’ and arguing about ‘intersectionality’ are inventing concepts which actually serve little purpose in the real world.
    Does such academic discourse on social equality actually feed the hungry and strengthen the weak, or does it just provide yet another job for a middle-class ‘activist’ who wants to feel self justified.

  3. Blargle says:

    You know, I think I prefer the SJers who just want to guillotine me to the kind that embrace brainwashing.

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