There are few things I relish more than a spirited, ranging conversation with friends over an overflowing plate of supreme nachos. Graciously, it is in this basic good that lies the promise of truths that can set us free. Dialogue is no panacea, of course. Words can unleash hell as easily as ushering in peace and goodwill on earth. Nevertheless, good conversation is the best thing on the menu, if served well. So what makes any old conversation about important and controversial issues the delicacy of civil discourse? I’d like to suggest a few essential ingredients, mostly learned from the unsavory taste of foot-in-mouth. Take these insights with a grain — or a dash — of salt.
Some would have us believe that we are not sheep, but feral cats, unwilling to be led; not clay, easily impressed upon, but immovable rocks. To deter the censorious, libertarians and artists assure us that music, literature, and film could not have moved a perpetrator’s hand. Cut to commercials. Advocates on controversial social issues frequently decline public debate by claiming that opinions are so entrenched that there can be no changing minds now. Hoist the placard.
It’s so oft repeated, it’s become a cliché that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, that people are mired in confirmation bias, that there’s no changing minds now. But every brand, club, teacher, corner-sign-waver, think tank, and advocacy group is predicated on the belief that we can be suayed. They are right. Though our views do tend to calcify along with our bones, it would be hard to overstate how profoundly influenced we are by family, friends, authorities, the news, literature, the weather, etc.
[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.John Maynard Keynes
And, regardless of how stubborn and narrow others might have become, we must personally nurture a spirit of openness in our own cases. Do we really want to persist in error when we are mistaken? Do we really want our progress in wisdom and knowledge to come to conclusion after college, after Kindergarten? We can only learn if we are open minded, or better, if we thirst for understanding. A closed mind deprives its owner of the chance to learn and stifles conversation, not to mention minimizing the value of what is said and the person who said it.
Essential to openness is a willingness to be self-critical. We must be willing and able to step back from our beliefs and evaluate them in light of the issues and concerns raised against them. We must be vigilant in seeking out new sources of information and insight. On the other hand, open-mindedness does not imply that one must remain interminably undecided. It is possible to grow in knowledge, even conviction, while realizing that our beliefs are forever incomplete, forever vulnerable to new reflection. Indeed, the testimony of many of our greatest thinkers suggests that the more we know the more we realize how much we don’t know.
In conversation, there are few more irksome reactions than that impatient interruption: “Yeah, but…” This knee-jerk response divulges the fact that either one’s conversee has spent the last moments preparing a rebuttal instead of considering the point being made; or, that the reply being served is a canned response, stored ready-to-use, untouched by recent reflection.
It is better to pause. Breathe. Consider.
Unlike your average talkfest, books and email offer a distinct advantage in that they force a pause, a chance to consider seriously what has just been said. In person, conversations are considerably messier. In my mind I have been envisioning a super-hero. His name is “Retrospect Man.” Forget speeding bullets, locomotives, and tall buildings. Blasé. Retrospect Man has the shrewdness of retrospect in the heat of every moment. Now that is power.
Thank God for second thoughts, for hindsight, for l’esprit d’escalier. Would that I could have them in the heat of the moment. We have all had sudden insights and regrets hours after the fray and wished ruefully that we had had them at the time. The mind needs time to brood and deliberate.
It would serve us well to bring this spirit of serious consideration to our conversations. We might replace our, “Yeah, but…s,” with, “Let me think about that for a moment.” Sometimes the raucous fray is fun, but in matters of consequence, we must listen — for real — and we must pause and consider. In that precious pause, there is the promise of revelation.
It is disheartening, the vitriol that characterizes so much rhetoric online and on air. The suspicion and utter disdain between proponents of opposing interests and ideologies is stunning. One might hope that the disrespect in such cases is exacerbated by the impersonal nature of speaking into a microphone or typing on a keyboard. Those we chastise are not people like us, but some “other”, some abstraction. And yet, I’ve been witness to demonstrators yelling invectives across police lines, to arguments devolving to the worst level of ad hominem. Often this seems to be the rule, not the exception. It’s a great shame. But, I suppose it is natural, when one can see no rational reason for one’s opponent’s position, to assume that position is rooted in some character flaw instead. If I cannot fathom why my adversary rejects what I am convinced of, it can only be because he is evil and malicious, or at best, ignorant. I dare say this unconscious reasoning is common. The alternative, that one’s opponent is well motivated and has legitimate reasons, is far more puzzling and threatening.
Unfortunately, conversation is nearly impossible where there is disrespect. Dialogue must occur between equals. I can only say that in my experience, rarely (if ever) are opposing camps divided along rigid lines: the educated vs. the ignorant, the cruel vs. the kind, the selfish vs. the altruistic, or the sinful vs. the righteous.
The reasons for our differences are diverse, complex, and often opaque. In actual fact, repeatedly I find the people with whom I disagree to be respectable, likable, and much like me.
Respect can displace disrespect if we seek out the best representatives of our detractors’ positions and hear their case, patiently and reflectively. It also behooves us to be in relationships with those with whom we disagree. Friendship is surely the most effective means of disabusing ourselves of any unwarranted fears and suspicions.
To end one of those dreaded, awkward silences, I recently asked a Canadian friend if she was offended by American ignorance of Canadian life. I confessed to her that I couldn’t begin to guess the name of the sitting Canadian Prime Minister. (By the way, his name is Jean Chrétien, or at least it was at the time.) Now, I’m no ignoramus, but to me, the body of knowledge at our disposal seems hopelessly unmanageable. If the world is getting smaller, then there is an inverse relationship between its size and what there is to know about it. Considering our intellectual abilities, when we venture into more difficult, divisive issues, we would be fools to do so without profound humility and caution.
There are more reasons for humility. For one, many of the brightest thinkers in history, after their best efforts, have disagreed on the issues that still matter to us. Personally, I find it disconcerting that many thinkers of great intelligence, both living and dead, have judged various beliefs that I hold and found them wanting. Indeed, in the present cultural milieu, most of my beliefs are minority views, and so I find myself at odds with the cognoscenti.
Moreover, anyone who has ever followed the perennial philosophical questions to their end must be humbled by the divers considerations that must be taken into account. Then there is the fact that our beliefs and values are tied to cultural tides that are forever adrift. The sacred cows of yesteryear are the laughing stock of today. The tides are unrelenting. We too will suffer under the chronological snobbery of our descendants. Finally, as one who is directly acquainted with my inner-life, I know that I harbor fears, mixed motives, deceptions, and more. There is a lot going on in the background that informs my beliefs and words and actions.
Anyone who is cavalier or haughty in his or her convictions has failed to realize the cloudiness and uncertainty debasing our convictions. Knowledge is not impossible, but our view is certainly obstructed by our limited faculties and our proneness to motives other than “splendorous truth.” The humble person sees conversations as opportunities to learn because she is realistic about her own apprehension. Humility is the seedbed of wisdom, and vice-versa.
There is no way I can surpass the Apostle Paul’s words here, so I quote:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ~ I Corinthians 13
To bring a heartfelt charity to the conversation is to bring a spirit that is deeply motivated by goodwill for others, including one’s foes. In its patience, charity perseveres through misunderstandings and frustrations. In kindness, it addresses sensitive issues gently, concerned above all to respect the dignity of persons.
Divested of excessive self-importance, charity is not bombastic, nor does it belittle or mock. Charity is not brusque, but considerate and civil. Charity does not quarrel for kicks, but simply because truth is urgent in a world of suffering and evil. Prizing truth in all things, charity does not caricature or misrepresent.
Finally, charity is optimistic. It assumes the best of others. It believes and hopes that dialogue will lead to greater peace and justice and human flourishing. And charity endures failures and setbacks, unflagging in its pursuit of the good.
One of the more distasteful rituals in American public life is when, after a political speech or debate, each party’s paid “spin doctors” address the media. Irrespective of their party’s performance, these spin-doctors rehash the feud prejudicially and declare victory. What is so offensive about the spin-doctor is his inability to be honest. No matter how incompetent his employer, he is bound to praise and defend him. The last thing I want to be is a spin-doctor for my convictions, and yet sometimes I find myself tempted.
When we are deeply devoted to something, we are reluctant to give an inch to those who criticize these commitments. As believers, maybe we describe the fulfillment we have found in our faith more glowingly than is our actual experience. Or perhaps, as social advocates, we publicly reject arguments that are actually quite troubling to us. Such dishonesty is a mark not of devotion but of insecurity. One who is truly confident of the truthfulness of her beliefs will be candid about her life and willing to follow arguments wherever they lead.
It can be a healthy exercise to share with one’s critics what it is that most causes us to question our own positions. I personally keep a list of those criticisms of my beliefs that I take to be especially incisive. Honesty is infectious, and such self-disclosure facilitates the kind of vulnerability whereby learning can take place. Specifically, the risk that vulnerability entails lays the foundation for mutual trust.
Don’t get me wrong. In many cases, rabbit trails are unassailable. They’ve rescued many a dull conversation. But at the same time, following the forks in an argument can derail the force of reason before conclusions are reached. In fact, it is exactly at these junctures, when we feel up against the ropes, that we are most likely to inject, “Yeah, but what about…” (This rhetorical device needs to be canonized as something like, “The Rodeo Clown Fallacy” or “Whack-a-Mole Fallacy”.) Instead, it is better to pause and note what the preceding line of argument has established, and perhaps take it to its logical conclusion before moving on.
The Rodeo Clown Fallacy falters into illogic not in virtue of being a false target (straw man, red herring), but by being an ever changing and ever elusive target. That is, it evades logic. Just as the horns of an argument are about to make their point, some guy in a clown suit yells, “Yeah, but what about…” This clown is certainly a legitimate target in his own right, but the problem is that there will forever be another rodeo clown ready to distract with a giggly, “Yeah, but what about…,” so no bad ideas ever get gored.
It has been suggested that one should internalize a practice of “seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.” This advice is excellent. There are many ways to follow this advice, the first being to listen instead of talk. It is not a bad idea to start any dialogue by asking a range of questions that reveal the specific beliefs of one’s conversees. This guards against the danger of ascribing to them stereotypical beliefs and attitudes that they do not hold. If possible, we should read the essential texts that advocate the positions we are seeking to understand. We might also attend lectures or services in which these positions are presented. Most importantly, we should seek out friendly relationships with those with whom we disagree. This step of goodwill is the invaluable ingredient that forces us to be honest about what is at stake.
Straw men, caricatures, and ad hominem arguments take their leave when we befriend living, breathing people.
The chorus of our day, sung loudly and insistently is that, “What you believe may be true for you, but not for me.” This revisioning of the term “truth” is so drastic that it is staggering that it is thought to make any sense at all in the previous sentence. In this new view, truth just is, “whatever one believes about the world.” The slogan amounts to, “What you believe is what you believe.” This truism is correct, but hardly helpful. Aristotle’s definition is in line with our normal use of the term. Truth is, “saying of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not.” Later thinkers described truth as a “correspondence” between our ideas and the world itself. I assume their commonsense definition here.
Ever since Descartes’ methodical doubt, skeptics have had a field day debunking any and all knowledge claims save an awareness of our own self-consciousness. Sophisticated versions of the child’s unrelenting question, “But why, Daddy? Because… But why?” have frustrated the most capable of philosophers. After all, despite appearances, we may be no more than “a brain in a vat,” or perhaps the world sprung into existence within the hour, just as it is. These are at least logical possibilities, so we cannot be certain of anything we think we know. Of course, there is no reason to believe these implausible prospects either. In view of this and related considerations, there is a kind of healthy skepticism that is wary of clichés, easy answers, naiveté, and sloppy thinking. It recognizes the intrinsic defeasiblity of human knowledge. But there is another kind of proud and lazy skeptic that cites these possibilities at the slightest provocation, that is, whenever something is asserted or they want to evade the force of an otherwise persuasive argument. By nature, it is exceedingly easier to be destructive than constructive, to poke holes instead of suggest possibilities. The relentless critic sits in the mocker’s seat and neither cares about truth nor is willing to volunteer his own account for scrutiny. He deserves no voice in the conversation. I myself am a notorious Devil’s advocate and I have inadvertently soured my share of conversations, but the aim of my incredulity is not nihilism, but to separate good arguments from bad ones. Caring about the truth is a prerequisite of great conversation.
The best way to go about our truth seeking is to recognize that there are certain truths that are evident. I know certain primitive facts about the world, such as, I am currently typing, red is a color, and torturing children for fun is wrong. On the basis of facts that are, without counter-evidence, undeniable, we can begin to draw inferences and make observations that draw us closer to truth. The principles of logic are part of that class of self-evident facts. They are also essential to all communication, and especially conducive to pursuing the truth of a matter. Unfortunately we are all prone to faulty logic. Because it can be so enormously helpful to be aware of potential pitfalls, I commend our Illogic Primer. I encourage you to browse through it and refer back to it regularly.
Reason, if there is such a thing, can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our personal perspective. It is something each individual can find within himself, but at the same time it has universal authority. Reason provides, mysteriously, a way of distancing oneself from common opinion and received practices that is not a mere elevation of individuality… not a determination to express one’s idiosyncratic self rather than go along with everyone else. Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of authority within himself that is not merely personal or societal, but universal… and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to it. ~ Thomas Nagel, The Last Word
One of the great benefits of caring about the truth is that it provides common ground for divided parties. If there is no truth to the matter, then human relations are just power plays where we maneuver to sanction our own agendas. The contemporary, stunted ethic of “just keep to yourself,” however workable, issues from the realization that since truth is passé, common ground is bygone. But if two divided parties are seeking truth, they are not opponents, hustling each other, but allies, striving towards the same goal.
In this pluralistic age, most ecumenically-minded observers believe that “understanding” should be the end goal of dialogue. It is an ambitious and tremendous goal. When understanding is achieved, much good has been accomplished. Still, to discontinue our quest at understanding is to end it too soon. Our end goal must be truth. If life were a kind of video game where misdirection had no lasting consequence and misdeeds no living victims, then understanding would suffice. Fortunately, life is immeasurably more significant. Our ideas, attitudes, and decisions are of great consequence, for good and for bad. Death, misery, suffering, ennui, and hopelessness are real, and empathy, soothing though it may be, is positively impotent in the face of them. If there is a better way to live, if there can be life after death, if there is a cause of our suffering, then, the truth of these matters should be our quest.
I am sympathetic to the concerns of those who fear that ideological conflict leads inevitably to violent hostility. Surely there is a frightening history to this effect. I insist, though, that in the context of the ingredients described above, conversation that takes truth seriously can only have the best results. In reality, without openness, pause, respect, humility, charity, honesty, and focus, attaining understanding is just as unlikely as drawing nearer to the truth.
Here’s to many a great conversation.
Cheers! And pass the Tabasco…
For more on this subject, browse the category Civility & Rhetoric.