Friday, August 1, 2014
In this case, the discussion was about religion, but let me hasten to say I don't think this kind of miscommunication is limited to religion. (That's why I'm writing this post--I'm taking a break from writing about religion, but this post is intended as a meditation on miscommunication, not religion.) I'm thinking this can happen any time you have a conservative traditionalist, like my friend, talking to a liberal non-traditionalist like me. In fact, as I realized when I went to Google Images and typed "arrogance", liberals and conservatives in general tend to see each other as insufferably arrogant. It's certainly true for me. I always thought George W. Bush was so smug--so absolutely sure his worldview was right--I could barely look at him (though I didn't feel that way about his dad). But what's funny is, I've realized conservatives see Obama the way I saw Bush. That's amazing to me because, while I don't always agree with Obama, but he's never struck me as smug. I don't look at his face and see a smirk. Did conservatives not see a perpetual smirk on Bush's face? As hard as it is for me to believe, no, they probably didn't.
Anyway, for the purpose of this post, I'm going to focus on one aspect of the conservative/liberal divide: traditionalism vs non-traditionalism. In particular, I want to focus on how each side sees arrogance when the conservative is defending a traditional value or belief, and the non-traditionalist is questioning it.
Here's my guess about what the traditionalist is thinking: she's thinking it's arrogant to set aside hundreds or thousands of years of tradition and go off in a new, untested direction. She's thinking, "Who are you to question values that have been foundations of our society for generations? They've been tried and tested for ages, and believed by many people smarter than you. If we ditch them, who knows what the consequences might be? How arrogant of you to think you know better."
As I said, that's a guess, and I may be wrong. As for what the non-traditionalist thinks, I don't have to guess, because I AM one. I'm thinking: "Sure, that's the traditional view in this part of the world, but what makes you so sure it's right? This society is just one of thousands that have ever existed on Earth, and if you grew up as a traditionalist in one of the other ones, you would probably think their way of doing things was right. Just because people grow up thinking something is true doesn't mean it is. Millions of people once grew up thinking the Sun went around the Earth, and that didn't make them right. Out of all possible beliefs, how arrogant of you to think yours, however widespread and traditional in this part of the world, are the right ones."
Obviously, I have more sympathy for my point of view (otherwise I would have switched to a different one). However, if you think about it, both sides have a point. And here's the thing: neither side is necessarily trying to be arrogant. They're just looking at things from utterly different points of view. You might say the traditionalist is taking a deep view, while the non-traditionalist is taking a broad view. Both ways of thinking can have merit.
So how can they find common ground? I'm thinking a few things need to happen. First, each side should probably realize they're going to seem arrogant to the other side. This may come as a surprise--I was surprised to realize how arrogant I seemed to my friend. Second, they should both try to sound as polite and un-smug as possible, because once somebody decides you're smug or arrogant, they're going to stop listening to you.* What's the point of having a discussion if neither side is listening? Third, they both need to cut the other side some slack, and realize they're probably not as arrogant as they sound...or at least, they aren't being arrogant on purpose.** They just have a totally different perspective about what's arrogant.
* Here's something that may just apply to the non-traditionalists--we need to realize how much traditionalists have emotionally invested in their values and believes--especially if they're religious. When I hear someone make a claim about something deeply traditional and emotionally-charged, such as religion, I just think of it as one hypothesis among many others, to be questioned and--if found wanting--rejected. I don't feel the emotions associated with it, as they do. I forget that debating such questions isn't like debating things involving less emotional investment, like whether Star Wars is a better series than Star Trek (actually, some people get pretty worked up about that, too.) I've sometimes found myself surprised when I question one of these beliefs, and people react as though I were cursing, or insulting their mother, or otherwise being rude, when I had thought I was being pretty polite. What I forget is that the very act of questioning some beliefs seems rude, and perhaps even blasphemous, to people who passionately believe them, no matter how politely you phrase it.
** Unless they are, in fact, an arrogant SOB who can't imagine being wrong about anything. That can happen, of course, in which case...why talk to them at all?