Recently, I performed some small experiments via social media, hoping people would bite. They did. It confirmed the existence of a frustrating phenomenon about which I’ve been complaining for some time, though I haven’t quite articulated clearly to my readers (both of you).
No one cares about anything that follows the word, “because.”
Because . . .
Still with me? Good. I’m glad at least you care, but you’re the exception, not the rule.
I won’t link to my experiments. I don’t think it’s fair to call out people unless they’re in a position to defend themselves, and by assumption, they aren’t here to defend themselves. You’ll have to take my word for it, which I’m sure you’ll do . . . until I tell you that people on your side did it also. Generally, what I did was write a short statement of opinion, but in the tradition of legal writing, I started with my conclusion. That is, I might say something like:
I believe the death penalty is a constitutional form of punishment. . .
I then immediately follow the statement with either some logic or, in the case of the failed experiment of this post***, some nonsense, such as:
. . . because I like to soak my feet in orange juice. It feels like grapeade. Peace out.
*** The experiment didn’t yield any results, but not surprisingly, on the same day I published it I received results from a different post that wasn’t even controversial. It never freaking stops!
The point was to show that, once people know that you disagree with them, they stop reading because they’ve already assumed you’re wrong. Why? Because they couldn’t possibly be wrong. Their fragile egos can’t handle that possibility. This is consistent with a lot of my pre-experiment experiences, including many of my real articles on this blog. Many people criticize or compliment my articles (or even single, short paragraphs) without reading them in full, and it’s obvious when that happens. They make arguments that I’ve already addressed, meaning that they’re actually not addressing my points. My opinions could be wrong, but I wouldn’t know it because they’re arguing points I’ve already, in my mind, proved wrong.
This is, in part, a consequence of what’s called the “argumentative theory of reasoning.” In short, we argue to win rather than to learn. As a result, the reasoning behind our arguing is irrelevant to both ourselves and those with whom we’re arguing. This can have tremendous value to a very primitive society, but so can infanticide. On the other hand, this is a plague on intelligent society (as is infanticide, but that’s not my point). Whenever we make a simple statement, and certainly when I write one of my far-too-long articles, people ignore everything we say after “because,” which in my case means everything after my first sentence. In news channel interviews, the moderator might force the arguers to be polite, but you can always see the arguers’ eyes glazing over as they shake their heads side-to-side as if to say, “No; you’re an idiot,” before even a tenth of the argument has been made. This isn’t anticipation of the full argument but rather stubbornly refusing to hear the other side.
Guess who’s really the idiot?
Probably all of them.
But It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This
This type of stubbornness can be a very effective tool when you’re conscious of it. When I was in law school, I was known among my study groups for saying some pretty whacky things. For example, I once told some friends, “I’m a moral relativist, and I believe child molestation is okay. Why am I wrong?” Most people, including those friends, are extremely annoyed by such exercises, but this was law school. This was why we were all there. They had to take interest in the debate. Chicago-Kent is a private school, so we were paying $25,000 a year for the privilege to put up with nuts like me.
I was doing the whole, “I’m going to win this argument at all costs,” thing, but I was aware that I was doing it. I was using my instinct (enhanced by the fact that I was raised in the Washington, DC area) as a tool to challenge myself. I’d paint myself into an intellectual corner and have to fight my way out. I’d even take points of view with which I disagreed (obviously). Really, isn’t that what lawyers are supposed to do? For all I knew, I had a bright future in defending child molesters.
So, even in our modern civilization, this characteristic isn’t necessarily bad, so long as we’re aware of it and deal with it. It actually encourages us to address issues we might otherwise ignore until we’re forced to by some whacko. (If caught off guard, we might lose the argument, and he might not be discouraged from going a-diddling at the playground.) If you really want to learn, though, you need to be brutally honest with yourself when your insecurities cause you to lose touch with reason. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “I hadn’t considered that. I don’t like it, but I can’t refute it. Call me tomorrow and I’ll try again to kick your ass.” There’s also nothing wrong with asking questions. No one – not even experts – knows everything, and it’s rare indeed for two people with exactly the same amount of knowledge on a subject to come together and argue. In most arguments, sooner or later, someone’s going to have to fall into the role of student, and if the topic is particularly complex (like almost all we’re discussing nowadays), both arguers might find themselves switching back and forth into that role. It might help if you’d recognize that for some issues there’s no objectively correct answer, so technically, it’s possible that neither of us are truly wrong.
Trying to win should be the means. Finding the truth should be the goal.
But in the End, Most People Are Dicks
Unfortunately, most people gladly succumb to their insecurities. It’s so much easier than the alternative, which involves listening to what we don’t want to hear. Accordingly, most people I know will not have made it past the title of this (or any) article, so they’ll continue the pattern of unproductive discourse that plagues our political debate. They’ll continue to polarize around political parties, because it’s easier to follow an ordered set of opinions that it is to formulate your own. They’ll continue to hurl personal insults rather than think about what the other person has said. They’ll continue to speak in snarky generalities, oversimplifications, or metaphors designed to attribute extreme views to the other person in order to characterize them as a nuts, thus justifying their own refusal to listen.
This isn’t something I’m making up. Ask a psychologist if you must – they’ll confirm it – but you know damn well from your own experiences that it’s true. You’ve all felt that mix of anger and fear whenever you’ve felt cornered intellectually. Why? What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll tell you: You might learn something you didn’t know. Why is that such a bad thing?
A Solution That Won’t Work
Despite my lack of faith in people, I’d like to see everyone start using the hashtag, #yourepartoftheproblem. I want you to use it even on Facebook, which doesn’t recognize hashtags, because, after all, it won’t have much of an effect even on platforms that do recognize hashtags. Most people won’t care, remember? Like all hashtags, movements, or any mass effort of any kind, this can and eventually will be overrun by abusers, so let’s lay down some ground rules. Use the hashtag only when someone says/does:
1. “All [political label] party members are [insult].” If you believe that statement in any form, just close your browser window now. You’re beyond hope.
2. Criticizes you obviously after reading only enough of your written statement to deduce that you’re on the other side.
3. Resorts to snarky catch phrases that oversimplify the issue, and therefore put words into your mouth (but see B, below).
4. Uses the hashtag, #youarepartoftheproblem, simply because someone has a different opinion. If you see this, pull out the first three rules or the six that follow and demonstrate clearly why the person falls into that category.
As for you, make sure to obey these rules:
A. Don’t fall into the four traps above.
B. Don’t punish honest arguments simply because they’re simple. Use them as a starting point. Twitter gives us only 140 characters for our first statement, and even Facebook, Google+, and others are difficult media for real conversation. Be patient and ask for clarification of points that seem strange to you rather than assume their meant to insult you or support an insane position.
C. Don’t punish someone because they don’t communicate well through writing. It’s not as if online posts are interpreted properly as a rule.
D. Don’t hold information hostage. Keeping people in the dark is a sure sign that you’re not secure in your position, which means there’s a need to address it.
E. Don’t use information as a tool to belittle others. You’re not better than anyone else, even if you know more. Besides, sometimes experts lose the forest for the trees.
F. Don’t think of yourself as an adversary. Think of yourself as a teacher and a student. Those are the people who seek the truth.
G. Stop using #youarepartoftheproblem when it gets hijacked by those who are part of the problem.
You have to police yourselves carefully here. It’s very easy to fall into category 4 or to violate any of the rules from the second list. In part, that’s because the root of our political differences isn’t something as high level as where you stand on the death penalty, environmentalism, campaign finance reform, or stricter immigration rules. Those issues are completely unrelated, and from the most simplistic viewpoint, there are 24 different sets of views you can have on just those four (e.g., “pro-pro-pro-pro,” “pro-pro-pro-con,” “pro-pro-con-con,” and so on). Yet a large majority of Americans seem to fall into one of only two sets of views on these issues: “pro-con-con-pro” and “con-pro-pro-con.” Doesn’t that seem odd?
The ties that bind our viewpoints on unrelated issues run much more deeply than the particular political issues themselves. Our views are based on very low-level assumptions on the role of government and our obligations to each other (i.e., the “social contract”). These assumptions are so ingrained in our thinking that, for most, they’ve probably been relegated to our subconscious. This would explain why at times we can’t imagine how the other side can see things their way, and we never seem to gain any ground with each other. It has less to do with the issue, and more to do with a deep, broad concept we seldom give any thought. (This also explains why, in my anecdotal experience, I’ve never known someone to go to law school, learn the details and history of the law, and change their political stances once they graduate. Everyone stays the same, politically speaking. They just learn better arguments.)
Here’s a crude and poor example, but it illustrates the point. Pro-life citizens believe that a fetus is a human being no different from you and I, and as such is deserving of the same constitutional protections as you and I. Pro-choice citizens believe the fetus is not a human being with the same access to rights as you and I (though there are multiple ways in which pro-choice citizens will characterize the fetus’s “nature”). If you’re arguing any other issue, you’re actually not arguing with one another, and that’s by design. If you assume that the other side is making the same assumption as you, you can paint them as a monster (i.e., a baby-killer or someone attempting to lower women to a social caste at the same level as the family pet). None of us are trying to do either, and if you put aside your anger and insecurity for just a second, you’d realize that.
Would we all then see eye-to-eye? No, especially not on this particular example issue, and thus the losing side in the argument (at this moment, the pro-life movement) would see the result as an atrocity needing correction. However, for most issues, empathy leads to honest discussion, and honest discussion leads to an agreeable compromise (or dare I say agreement!). Uncivil discourse prevents this from ever happening.
If anything can change human behavior, it won’t be a long-winded post on this obscure, seldom-read blog, but this article shouldn’t be seen as an attack against its readers. Everyone acts this way at times. I still won’t have discussions on the Second Amendment because I don’t trust my ability to approach it rationally. This doesn’t mean I can’t do better. I just need to try. If I do, success is inevitable, but success can be fleeting. It can be lost if I don’t stay vigilant. Also, there’s nothing wrong with honest disagreement. We can have strongly held views. This article isn’t about whether you’re substantively right or wrong. It’s about how you treat other people. It’s about the procedure you take when arguing with them.
Unfortunately, I have little faith in humanity in general, but I believe an asteroid will kill us all before we do it ourselves, so maybe this article was a waste of time. If so, I apologize.
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