Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic has observed in his comments that some topics are difficult to discuss productively:

The following goes for this particular space, and not for the net at large: I think education is hard. I think anything dealing with food choices is hard. As a corollary, I think anything dealing with weight is hard. I think feminism–though not necessarily gender–is really effing hard. Israel is is probably the hardest–indeed, I avoid it, whenever possible. I think Sharia is really effing hard. Perhaps there’s a through-line here that I’m missing. I’d love it if someone can connect that dots.

Despite being unable to find a through-line that connects these issues, he offers a hypothesis as to why some topics are hard for him and his blog and yet others, which seem like they should be, aren’t:

…I find that the easiest thing to handle here is that which much of society struggles with–race. One view might hold that, being liberals, race is something we all agree on, thus making it easy to discuss. I think that’s partially true, but I also think that authority allows you to keep conversations on track….

…In that vein, I think, a really smart medical doctor who’s studied obesity might be better able to conduct a thread on weight….

Authority, of course, springs from more then in-group membership. I think you also have to be willing to examine evidence that undermines your working theories. I think you can’t dismiss discomfiting arguments out of hand. I think you have to be willing to disagree with those in your own camp, but not so much that you become the one unscrupulous partisans trot out to advance their agenda… These tools, paired with personal experience and interest, allow people to assume a kind of sincerity that they otherwise might not.

So the ingredients are authority, which can come in part from in-group membership and experience, and a reputation as an honest broker. These all seem like good common-sense ingredients for a thoughtful, productive conversation about sensitive topics. So this is useful if your looking for advice about how to have these conversations, but as TNC recognizes, it does not provide a deeper explanation for the phenomenon.

So this is my challenge: why are some topics difficult to have productive conversations about and others not? And why do we heavily weigh experiential and in-group authority on some topics and not on others? In particular, I would be interested to hear the George Mason/Robin Hanson style explanation for this phenomenon.

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