Signal To Noise

Ever wonder why you are having such a hard time getting along with that once-dear friend who is now on the far side of the political Great Divide? This post might help bridge that knowledge gap.

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These illustrations are from an article on cameras that can be found Cambridge In Colour

Many years ago, I was playing in a roleplaying game known as The Corruption Campaign, along with my friend Bill of Doom. (Not to be confused with Uncle Bill).

Bill and I were involved in tricky negotiations some arrogant aristocrats (Princes of Amber). Sometimes, these went well. Sometimes, they went badly. But, after a while, I began to notice something.

Bill’s character, Stormhawk, was not a bloodthirsty guy, but he talked like an American. If Stormhawk disagreed with something, he would announce with almost no provocation, in a booming voice, “Kill them all!” or “Nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

But he very seldom did attack anyone who was not an outright enemy.

On the other hand, if he liked something or offered someone help, he was very sincere, and he meant what he said.

The aristocrats we spoke with were exactly the opposite. They would make flowery comments that sounded kind or flattering, but they meant nothing by them.

But if they breathed a word of a threat, they were deadly serious, and they meant to carry through.

They thought we Americans were crazy, deadly people.

We thought they were insincere flatterers.


In radio, there is a phrase called signal to noise ratio. It refers to the difference between the desired information ( the signal) and the amount of background interference (the noise).

The problem Bill of Doom and I had when confronting the arch princes was: Incompatible definitions of what was signal and what was noise.

You see, to Stormhawk:

Kindness: signal

Threats: noise

But to the princes:

Kindness: noise

Threats: signal

The lessons learned playing this game (Don’t think D&D. Think “wandering around in your favorite novel with regular moral twists) have proven helpful in our modern world, because what I see when I watch my friends on different sides of the political spectrum is:

Incompatible definitions of what is signal and what is noise.

Let me give an example. Let’s say there are two young ladies, Hanna and Annah (Nice palindromes there, Annah and Hanna, but now that we’ve got across the point—that they are just the same thing in reverse—I’m going to write the first one Anna, for simplicity.)

Bear with me here. This is only an example.

Hannah is pro-life. To her, life is holy. She cannot understand how someone could murder a baby, at any age. Or how they cannot care for these helpless little ones who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about lesser life forms, but they don’t care about babies!

How could this be?

At first, Hannah just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing the environment in her face, more and more. They care more about falcon eggs than they do about real living human beings—even if they are not breathing human beings yet.

Hannah gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid falcons. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about babies!!!

Next we turn to Anna.

So…Anna is an environmentalist. To her, nature is holy. She cannot understand how someone could mistreat this beautiful world—that we all have to live in! Or not be concerned for these poor creatures who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about producing more humans to mess up the environment, but they don’t care about falcons becoming extinct!

How could this be?

At first, Anna just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing anti-abortion arguments in her face, more and more. They care more about unborn lumps of cells than they do about real living and breathing creatures.

Anna gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid humans. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about falcons!!!

Now, on that particular day, Hanna happens to read Anna’s blog, and Anna happens to read Hanna’s blog. Each had written a long piece supporting their side, but the end of the piece was the lines in bold above.

Two weeks, two months, two years later, what is the result? What has each young woman come away with?

Hanna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed falcons. She only remembers her impassioned plea for unborn life.

Anna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed human beings—after all, she is a human being. She only remembers her impassioned plea to save the helpless falcons.

But what do they remember about the other person’s blog? Only the last line.


Because to Hannah—babies are signal, and falcons are noise.

While to Anna—falcons are signal, and human beings are noise.

Ever wonder why the opposition—whatever side you are not on—only ever seems to attack and quote the outliners on your side? The most horrible folks? The most obnoxious comments? How they never seem to get the point? How the throwaway line you, or your favorite blogger, tossed off when you were pissed off is repeated everywhere, while the strongly-reasoned arguments are ignored?

This is why.

To them, that throw away line is signal—because its on the subject they care about. To you and your blogger friend, it’s noise.

So, next time you feel the urge to bridge the endless gap—and maybe talk to that crazy lunatic on the other side who used to be a bosom buddy—try this simple trick:

Pick the lines the other person says that upset you the most. Ignore them. Just pretend that they are not there. Pretend that they are static. Noise.

Because, chances are, that to him, it is just noise.

And you’ve been missing the signal, tuning it out, all along.

Then, listen closely to whatever he seems to think is the most important part–even if it sounds like mad nonsense to you. NOT, mind you, what he says at loudest volume—that is likely to be noise, too—the part he speaks about fervently or with reasoning.

From there, you can often find a bridge, a common point of agreement—because at the very least, you now know what the important issues actually are. To use my first example: you are speaking kindness to kindness or threat to threat.

Even if you can’t agree, at least you will be talking signal to signal, instead of noise to noise.

It’s difficult, but after a few tries, you’ll be a champion Great Divide bridger in no time.

Give it a try.

And if you run into trouble—you absolutely can’t find the other guy’s signal—don’t hesitate to swing by and ask for help.

If nothing else, it gives me a chance to prove that roleplaying games are good for something after all.

  • Terry Sanders

    I regret to say I completely disagree, and have since read it the first time.

    Your Stormhawk example is a real thing, and describes a real thing. Figures of speech can be deceiving, and you do have to be careful sometimes. But your other example is flatly wrong. Neither Annah nor Hanna is putting out noise.

    To Hanna, babies are important, falcons less so. Two signals. She dialed the gain on signal two past eleven once out of sheer anger *at people whose signals made it clear that *they think she’s both wrong and stupid.** Their signals may have themselves been dialed up and thereby distorted, but *they were signals.*

    And vice versa.

    Stormhawk is more like that famous Reagan quote after his election:

    What about the Soviets?
    We start bombing in ten minutes.

    Nobody who didn’t already assume he was a monster thought he meant it. It was not just noise–it was a laugh track. But some people who should have known better went ballistic. That’s signal and noise. And otherwise intelligent people from sufficiently different cultures can fall prey to it.

    It’s a valid point. But I’m afraid you’re stretching it way too farm

    • Mrs. Wright

      I can see your point, but politely disagree. I think there are cases where what you are pointing out is true, but I have seen many cases where what I am describing holds true. The people hold one idea as important and belittle the second, not because they care, but because they think it is less important than the first and are tired of hearing people laud the first over their concern.

      • Terry Sanders

        And I have also seen many examples of both. Which is why I agree with Mr. Simon, that you picked an unfortuate example.

        In practically every example of that particular disagreement I have been involved with–or observed (more often–I long ago concluded that actually taking part in such a discussion was a waste of time)–the environmentalist meant exactly what was said: falcons are important, babies are not. If you got them to calm down enough, only the volume changed.

        The pro-life type you describe might well have just lost her temper–I have seen that one both ways. Quite a few such people would–and do–say that although falcons are less important than babies, they were nonetheless important–perhaps *very* important. Others do not.

        In either case, though, the kind of statement you describe is frequently the response to the eighty-second time someone told her, calmly and rationally, that babies were just tumors until somebody decided she wanted one, but that falcon eggs must be protected even if it means (other people’s) children die of malaria. And acted accordingly. While telling her she was a narrow-minded idiotic bigot.

        As I said in my original response–and in my other comments here–I agree with the basic thesis. But I fear you draw the moral far too broadly. I have spent much of my life in silence, because I *did* see both sides of people’s arguments. I was frequently the only one in the room who did *not,* at some point, stop listening the moment someone’s position clearly opposed mine. And I also noticed that it was almost always the Hannahs that tried to balance the signal and get a coherent message out of it–until they were provoked beyond endurance. And it was almost always the Annas who *looked* for an excuse to go ballistic. And were proud of it.

        And we made allowances for them. And here we are.

        • Mrs. Wright

          There is some truth to what you say…but, imhe, it has not always been Hannah who was reasonable.

          Until recently. Recently, the Annas have been less and less coherent–unless they are older, and still upholding the principles of the previous generation of Liberals.

          But the newer generation seem more and more shrill.

  • Your example is not symmetrical. Not caring about falcons is a viable choice for a human being, but not for a falcon; well, Hannah is not a falcon and has the right to set her own priorities. Not caring about humans is a viable choice for a falcon, but not for a human being; Anna is a human being, and is deliberately declaring her enmity to her own society and her own species.

    There is no bridging the divide with a dedicated arsonist. Your bridge will be set on fire while still under construction. I have much experience of this. If you, as a human, say, ‘Look, I don’t care about the stupid humans,’ you are piling up the paraffin-soaked rags and reaching for the matches. This is not noise; it is an incendiary remark, and nobody makes such a remark without intending it to be received as such. It may be done for the applause of one’s own claque, but the point is to earn that applause by deliberately refusing any kind of reasoned discourse.

    Bella Dodd, whose autobiography you yourself, Ma’am, introduced to me, knew full well that the internal propaganda of the Communist Party consisted largely of exactly this kind of incendiarism. The whole point was to refuse to engage any non-Communist in discussion; to besmirch them, destroy their reputations, assassinate their characters, but on no account to make an opening to actually hear them. One did not build bridges with Communists; one either joined them, or resisted them, or consented to be used by them. They themselves, as a matter of Party policy, were not open to any other options.

    There is a further problem, and it is perfectly exemplified by George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton. They once held a public debate, the transcript of which was published as a book, called Do We Agree? Shaw took the affirmative: he argued that he and Chesterton agreed about all the important things, and disagreed only about trivialities. Chesterton took the negative: he said that the things they disagreed about were precisely the things that were important, and one of the most important things they disagreed about was which things were important. To use your excellent terms, the very criteria for distinguishing between signal and noise were an essential part of each man’s signal, and there was no compatibility between them.

    In the mild and civil society they lived in, a difference of this kind was not enough to prevent two educated Englishmen of the right social class from being on friendly personal terms. But it was enough to make genuine two-way communication impossible. Chesterton was, as I find, able to largely or even fully understand Shaw; but Shaw, whose whole philosophy began by banishing most of the things Chesterton cared about, was never able to understand Chesterton. He was a narrow man, with narrow sympathies; that very philosophy made him cling to his narrowness and pique himself upon it. The only bridge that could be built between two such men was one based upon conventional courtesy; and now that such courtesy has ceased to be conventional even in England (it never was, in most places), even that kind of bridge is liable to be burned on sight.

    • Terry Sanders

      I said to him, ‘What disguise will hide me from the world? What can I find more respectable than bishops and majors?’ He looked at me with his large but indecipherable face. ‘You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?’ I nodded. He suddenly lifted his lion’s voice. ‘Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!’ he roared so that the room shook. ‘Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then.’ And he turned his broad back on me without another word. I took his advice, and have never regretted it. I preached blood and murder to those women day and night, and—by God!—they would let me wheel their perambulators.”

      G. K. Had his moments. A lot of them.

    • Stephen J.

      “This is not noise; it is an incendiary remark, and nobody makes such a remark without intending it to be received as such.”

      I think that depends on how one views human psychology. One very plausible view holds that what somebody spits out thoughtlessly in frustrated impulse — as often happens in both verbal discourse and hasty Internet posting — should be taken as the most accurate and reliable indicator of their “real” character and opinion, because it is the most likely not to be filtered and sanitized for public consumption. Another equally plausible view holds that such temperamental overfroth is far more often an aberration of the moment and that it is only what people say at their calmest, least pressured and most reasonable that should be taken as their “true” belief, because it is the most likely to be free of distorting emotional overreaction. A third view, and the one I subscribe to, is that both these things are true and it requires sustained experience of both modes of reaction from an individual person before one can hope to form an accurate judgement of what is truly signal and what is noise for that person.

      This does not in itself disprove your very valid point that two ideologies which mutually exclude each other’s fundamental definitions of signal vs. noise cannot ever hope to find common ground, nor that this fact has been consciously exploited to try to make mutual reconciliation impossible from the get-go. But humans being humans, we fail at being perfect ideologues as much as we fail at perfection anywhere else; the perfect Communist may be psychologically unreachable by definition, but no human is a perfect Communist. So it may still be worth trying.

    • Mrs. Wright

      You do make some good points, Sir.

      But I hold that my premise is true in general…that people tend not to really pay attention to the argument of the other side, but only to the part that counters their concern…even if it is also true that sometimes they are disingenuous.

      • I agree with your premise in general. I merely think you could have chosen a more apt example.

  • Geoarrge

    People tend to project their own mentality onto others. They imagine themselves not being sure about a subject, and then make the arguments they think would convince their younger selves.

    People on the left side of the great divide seem to interpret the world mainly in terms of environmental conditions, and any expectation for someone to individually overcome disadvantageous conditions is seen as cruel, whereas on the right it’s a form of respect to assume that someone is, or is capable of becoming, a competent human being.

    • That is rather greatly helpful for figuring out how to convey to some folks who are quite sure that reciting what happened to them will cause it to happen to me, just as soon as I actually understand it….

      Of course, “arguing to persuade the unsure” is a lot more likely than changing folks’ minds.

  • Got any way to fix the “responding to things that aren’t said, are flatly not in the text, and half the time have nothing to do with what you said, because they’re sure that’s what you mean” thing?

    In terms of your example– the hero guy held that, for violence, what you DID was important; the noble guys held that what you SAID was important.

    • Terry Sanders

      Well, you could avoid taking guys like that on diplomatic missions.

      But seriously, folks…

      The problem with the conversation is slightly more complicated than that. The nobles are from a culture that says “Flattery is commonplace. You use it to keep from killing each other. And it doesn’t usually mean anything. But if you utter a threat, you’d better be ready to back it up.”

      Bill/Stormhawk, on the other hand, is from a culture that uses ironic understatement and ironic overstatement as humor. To him, “Kill ’em all, let God sort it out” is a completely different kind of statement than “If you do that I will kill you.”

      In both cultures, there are ways around it. I am quite sure that if a noble wanted to really compliment you, he would have a vocabulary and way of speaking that would convey that clearly. IF you were also from that culture. See “haragei.” And nobody who knew Stormhawk would keep doing something if (for an imaginary example) he suddenly went blank-faced, looked you straight in the eye, and said in a flat tone, “Stop that. Now.” Surely these Amber guys can see the obvious, right?

      Not sure what you can do about it, other than pay attention. A LOT of attention. And go in expecting to make adjustments.

      • Mrs. Wright

        This is a game experience, but I’ve seen the real life equivalent many times. Sometimes, people catch on and learn to talk to each other…sometimes things go South.

        • Terry Sanders

          Yep. When it works, it works. When one side doesn’t bother, you start looking for cover. 🙂