Friday, October 14, 2011

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Why We Need to Change How We Debate

When I see people having angry debates (or when I cool down after getting into one) it always strikes me that we need to reframe how we see the purpose of a debate.  People tend to approach a debate as a winner-take-all game that you either win or lose, instead of a way to collaboratively search for the real truth.  Most people have their point of view, which they take for granted to be correct, and they try to prove how it's better than their opponent's point of view.  Oftentimes, both sides lose their cool and start needling or insulting each other, trying to make the other side look stupid.  If each side represents an ideological group (say, American liberals and conservatives), each group is turned into a sinister caricature of itself by the other side--stupider, meaner, and more extreme than most of them really are.  There are a whole bunch of problems with this approach:

·         People are much too confident they are right.  Human understanding is pretty error-prone.  Our feeble senses pick up thin slices of a complex world, and we use our limited brains to try to put these slices together into an accurate picture, based on our past experience.  Our understanding at best limited and at worst flat wrong.  Nevertheless, we get emotionally attached to our grasp of reality.  So, the views that we get red-faced defending are quite likely to be inaccurate.

·         Insults, rants, needling, and caricatures only convince those who agree with them in the first place.  No self-respecting person is going to listen to someone tell them how stupid and wrong they are, and think "OK, I guess you're right".  The more measured and polite your argument is, the more likely it is to be convincing to someone who doesn't agree with it.  This may seem pretty obvious, but it's very hard to remember in the heat of debate.  It never seems to have occurred to some people at all.  The point is, even if your goal is to win a debate, then getting angry and insulting is a bad approach. Of course, this assumes that your idea of winning a debate is convincing your opponent.  If your idea of winning is to thoroughly insult and humiliate your opponent, it might work.  That's a common goal, but is it a worthy one?  I mean, Galileo was insulted and humiliated, but he was still right.

·         Most people are at least partly right.  We tend to treat people who disagree with us as if they were wrong...period.  Sometimes that's true, but oftentimes it's not.  If you're a conservative, and a liberal tells you it's easier to make money if you already have money--they're right.  If you're a liberal, and a conservative tells you there are freeloaders who leech off the system--they're right, too. 

·         Lots of people who don't agree with us turn out to be fairly intelligent and moral.  Even if someone has a belief you find repulsive and immoral, they are likely to be a decent person in other ways.  This seems obvious...if it's someone you know well.  "Well, Uncle George is racist, and that's disgusting, but he would do anything for his friends and family, and he's really smart about a lot of things".  That doesn't work if you don't know the person well.  "That George guy is a racist.  He's a complete maggot".  The problem with turning people into sinister, stupid, repulsive caricatures based on unsavory characteristics is: 1. It's inaccurate.  2. Deciding a person, or group of people, is bad through-and-through is the first step people take toward killing them.  Maybe that's a slippery slope argument, but that slope really can be slippery, because nasty arguments are self-reinforcing.  They have a tendency to escalate into even nastier arguments.  Push comes to shove.  When you hear someone talking about "idiot libtards" or "rethuglicans", it's not that hard to imagine them contemplating violence.

·         If it's common for people to be partly right, then the point of most debates should to compare notes, and try to work out the bigger picture each person is only partly seeing.  This is the point of great story Buddhists and Sufis like to tell:  A group of blind men, who have never heard of elephants, is given a chance to go and touch one for a few seconds.  One feels the trunk, and thinks an elephant must be a lot like a snake.  Another feels a leg, and decides it must be like a pillar.  One feels its tusks, and decides that it has horns, like a cow.  When the blind men start talking about the elephant, they immediately start arguing, each insisting that his impression is the right one.  Finally, they walk away from each other, muttering darkly about what idiots the others are.  What they should have done, clearly, is to be civil and compare notes.  If they had talked it over for a while, accepting that reality is bigger and more complicated than their simple impressions, they would have gotten a much better idea about elephants.  Let me be clear, though:  I'm not arguing for absolute "reality-is-socially-constructed" relativism here.  There really is an elephant, whether any blind men fondle it or not.  In real life, everyone isn't always partly right.  If someone tells you the earth is flat, they are wrong, period.  This is the blind man who never touches the elephant at all (perhaps because he's sure he knows what an elephant is).  People can certainly be plain wrong, but my point is that our intellectual opponents are partly right far more often than we give them credit for.  Reality is a big, weird elephant.  Nobody understands completely, but most people manage to touch it occasionally.

My point here is that we need to change how we see the goals of a debate.  It doesn't need to be a winner-take-all game.  Most debates can be win-win if we can be respectful, and if we can consider the possibility that we might be partly wrong, and our opponents partly right.  Even if we're completely right, we're more likely to convince our opponents if we're reasonable and polite.  Relating to people we don't agree with by vilifying and insulting them is, in a word, stupid. It's not just childish; it's actually irrational, because it's counterproductive.  If I decide I can't possibly be wrong, and that my opponents are all mean-spirited idiots who deserve nothing more than to be put in their place, I'm taking the lowest road I can find.  There are higher roads, and we need to make better use of them.