One of the great tragedies of our modern culture is the tendency to reinforce our intellectual laziness by demonizing those who disagree with our positions on controversial issues. Take almost any controversial subject: religion vs. atheism, Democrat vs. Republican, pro-choice vs. pro-life, creationism vs. common-origin evolution, Apple vs. Microsoft, etc. When you read arguments by each side in the debate (or non-debate), all too often the emphasis is not on reasonable discourse, but rather focused on completely demonizing those who disagree. Democrats are not just people who perhaps have a differing set of assumptions or a different underlying philosophy, they are Communists, hypocrites, fools, liars, and all around bad people. Republicans are greedy, hate-mongering, hypocrites, liars, ignorant fools, clinging to their guns and religion. Microsoft users are sheep, too ignorant and apathetic to recognize superior technology. Apple users are fan-boys, blindly following wherever Apple leads them.
The net result of these characterizations is that once we have an extreme profile of those who disagree with us fixed in our minds, it is easier to write off their arguments. We get drawn into an Us vs. Them mentality, rooting for our team, cheering when our team scores a point or the other team makes a mistake, quick to make excuses when someone who agrees with us gets caught in a lie or controversy. This leads to an almost complete shutdown of real, respectful, thoughtful debate. Discussions with the other side become exercises in scoring points and trying to win, rather than an opportunity to consider other perspectives.
This is an area that I believe is very important to the education of our children, but also to the way that we think and treat others as adults. The common response to the polarization and hostility surrounding these controversial subjects is to completely avoid them in polite society, except possibly when in a group that is in complete agreement. This severely limits our opportunities to learn and grow in understanding. Another popular response is to adopt a philosophy that presumes that all ideas are relative and equally valid.
My personal perspective is that all ideas are not equal, that in many cases there is a truth
, and that sometimes people are just wrong. For political issues, I tend to believe that there are different trade-offs involved in different approaches and that we should be able to have rational discussions about the underlying assumptions and results of differing philosophies. In the Apple vs. Microsoft debate, clearly one side is correct and the other mistaken 🙂 . I think the key elements missing in the debate, however, are intellectual humility and mutual respect.
It is important that we develop an attitude of respect towards other people and their ideas and opinions. We may think someone is wrong. We may find their opinions offensive or hurtful. We may even believe that their attitude is destructive. In these cases it may be appropriate to speak up and disagree, but there is no value in dehumanizing someone based on their ideas.
Obviously the best way to teach our children to be respectful of others is through example. When we discuss controversial topics with them, we should be careful not to demean or belittle those who disagree. I think it is critical to teach what we believe and why, but to also make an attempt to explain why others may feel differently.
Many parents and schools place an emphasis on teaching a very simplified form of logic, including basic deductive reasoning and a series of logical fallacies to watch for in arguments. This can have some value, but tends to be used as a mechanism for winning arguments rather than gaining understanding. I frequently see people in debates jumping on every mistake or perceived logical fallacy rather than trying to make a serious attempt to understand what the other person is saying. One piece of advice that I’ve heard is to not focus too much on the argument that someone you disagreed with actually used, think about the strongest argument that they could have used. This keeps us from latching on to minor mistakes and allows us to narrow in on the real difference, often an unstated underlying assumption.
A much more useful field of study, in my opinion, is epistemology. Thinking carefully about why we hold the beliefs that we do, considering different possible sources of belief, and searching for underlying root assumptions are much more powerful in trying to understand the root of a debate. These pursuits can aid in an honest search for truth much more than the study of sophistry.