Superversive Blog: 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.

Why?

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.

Why?

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.

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