AdrianG (adriang) wrote,

About Rational Discussion

I believe strongly in the value of rational discussion.

I believe that when we pretend to agree with someone on a point where we actually disagree, we show that person a kind of contempt. When we withhold dissent to avoid offending someone, we are really trying to avoid an immature reaction from that person to what we might say. To act on the assumption that someone is immature is to show disrespect. While some people are that immature and while we may have to be careful about choosing the right moments and methods treat them as respectfully as we can, it is a mistake to equate agreement with loyalty and dissent with disloyalty.

Thinking is more of a social skill than most people realize. We do a lot to determine the quality of the end results of our thinking when we decide what to measure it against. There is nothing about careful thinking that is built in to anyone's mind. We learn to think well by testing our thoughts against the criticism of our peers.

As children, we begin by being terribly upset when we play board games and lose. All children begin as sore losers when it comes to games. We have to learn to become good losers before we can begin to learn how to play the games well. It's obvious that losing deliberately to avoid hurting the feelings of a child will not help that child learn play effectively.

In the same sense, we begin, as children, with no understanding that criticism of our ideas is helpful. We all begin as sore losers when it comes to ideas, and where we understand, as a culture, the importance of teaching children to become good losers when it comes to games, we do not, as a culture, understand the importance of teaching children to become good losers when it comes to ideas. We can no more become good at thinking before we learn to lose well at ideas than we can become good at games before we learn to lose well at those games.

When we express our ideas and our friends criticize them respectfully and honestly, we have an chance to learn what might have gone wrong with the way we arrived at our conclusions. If we embrace these chances, we can learn to anticipate these criticisms, and then before we express our next ideas, we can either accept the criticisms and keep thinking, or we can decide ahead of time how to respond to those criticisms. In the same sense that the quality of our chess game improves as we test our skills against those of other players, the quality of our thinking improves as we test our ideas against the criticism of our peers.

The habits of careful and analytical thinking can only be developed through practice. This practice must be with other people who will argue their points of view respectfully and truthfully when they disagree. Just as a chess opponent will teach us nothing if he doesn't challenge our skills for fear of offending us, our peers do nothing to help us learn to think well if they simply agree with us to show their loyalty. A person who claims that he doesn't need this help learning to think is just as foolish as a child who insists that he doesn't need to accept losing before he can learn to win.

Whether we realize it or not, we determine a lot about the future quality of our thinking when we choose the friends with whom we discuss our ideas. If we select only those friends that show us their "loyalty" by agreeing with us, we choose not to learn how to think effectively. When we cultivate the habit of expressing our dissent respectfully to others when we disagree, we accomplish two things. First, we may help our friends refine their ideas and thinking skills. And second, we expose enough about our own thinking that our friends can help us refine our own ideas and thinking skills. When we choose the people with whom we will discuss our ideas, we are choosing those people who will have a chance to influence how we think. To see a willingness in our friends to challenge (respectfully) our beliefs and ideas as disrespectful is terribly naive and counter-productive.

If you doubt my commitment to these ideas, read my journal. I've tried to show enough about why I think the things I do that you will have a reasonable chance of talking me out of my stated positions, if you disagree with them. Afterall, you can show me the flaws in my thinking much faster if you can see what's behind my conclusions. In return, if you decide to express your own dissent in reply, tell me enough about why you disagree so that I have a chance to influence your thinking. If our discourse is to be respectful, we must each give the other a chance to influence our thinking. For this reason, respectful discourse demands a level of honesty and a genuine effort to understand the other person's beliefs and to appeal to him in terms of his own beliefs. Try this sort of appeal and see if I respond the way I say I should.



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