I’ve been trying to decide what to write about this week for this blog post. Numerous ideas bounce around in my head every day, and I have at least three “quick memo” files on my smartphone full of blog post topics, some of which I’ve already written, but most of which I haven’t.
I read a lot—I always have—and I listen to podcasts and to audio books during my commute, at least when I’m not listening to music or just letting my thoughts meander like that restless wind inside a letterbox, as John Lennon so beautifully put it. I even keep vaguely abreast of current events. Because of all this, and because of the excitable nature of my mind, a great many ideas keep popping up, of varying quality and interest.
Unfortunately, as my life currently stands, I have very few—zero counts as few, right?—people with whom to have deep intellectual discussions…or even shallow intellectual discussions. This is part of what drives me to want to make Iterations of Zero more active, so that at least I can feel that my thoughts are getting out there and bouncing around the world rather than just around my head.
I greatly admire the speaking, and especially the writing, of the late, great Christopher Hitchens; his rhetoric was certainly of the highest order. When considering my own non-fiction writing, I’ve occasionally felt envious of and even aspired toward, that harsh, biting style of commentary that he and those like him often used, and my ambitions sometimes drive me to seek that manner of presentation.
In my more serene and sedate moments, though, I realize that such a style is probably not merely “not my cup of tea” but is possibly counterproductive. There’s enough hostile, accusatory, derisive and derogatory interaction in the world. There’s too much, in fact. When explorations of ideas are approached as contests, with the implicit goal of scoring points—or worse, as wars—then the only likely place to expect intellectual growth is among disinterested spectators, and even they are apt to be persuaded more by cleverness of style, by skill with a cunning insult, than by depth of argument, quality of ideas, and consistency of logic.
I can’t endorse this as a way to explore truth. I don’t have much interest in “debate” as a competition. I’m much more interested in discussion, in conversation, where there is no shame in being persuaded by the legitimate arguments of one’s interlocutor.
This notion was brought home to me strongly by a recent conversation I had with my brother. He and I have some minor political disagreements, but neither of us is fanatically committed to them. We were complaining to each other about how frustrating Facebook in particular is, precisely because people there seem to have so much trouble being civil, if they even try. With that preface, when our conversation came to areas on which we had some disagreement, I felt the knee-jerk urge to be biting, but it was easily curtailed. This was my brother, after all. We shared a room for the first decade and a half of my life, and we are trained, practiced, and naturally disposed to get along with each other.
My brother is not as “formally” educated as I am, but I also know that he is a much more positive person. I, on the other hand, possess a vastly greater store of inherent malice—which, because of my awareness of it, I’ve trained myself to resist—so it’s easy for me to see, to know, that my brother is as far from being my enemy as it’s possible for someone to be. I know from literal lifelong experience that his intentions are positive. Good intentions may not be enough to ensure good outcomes, as the old cliché reminds us, but they do matter, and they certainly say important things about a person.
Because of that conversation, I reminded myself to fear the trap of thinking that those who disagree with me are my enemies. They are not. Quite the contrary in most cases. The very fact that they care about the state of the world and about what’s true means that, at some deep level, they are my allies.
Now, of course, if someone refuses to listen to those who disagree with him, but instead merely insults and even assaults them, that person is not an ally of truth. But to the degree that people are, at least in principle, open to argument and evidence, they are my brothers, my sisters, my comrades, in the quest better to understand the nature of reality.
Of course, I need to practice what I preach. I’m a strong advocate of striving to be more reasonable than others, if you want to promote reason and to seek truth. Obviously, this doesn’t mean conceding what you think is an important point about which you’re convinced you’re correct. But it does mean recognizing that your opponents are not demons but are people , trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what they ought to do, and trying to find the will to do what they ought to do.
It’s a big old universe, and we haven’t been given an instruction manual to it. No one understands it in its entirety. And, contrary to the general tone of much of Facebook and Twitter, we can be pretty sure that only a small number of people are willfully—or even willingly—evil.
So, I’m going to try not to take a biting or combative or snarky tone in my writing here; I’m going to try to avoid being derogatory to anyone but myself (I’m the easiest target, anyway). I’m going to pursue conversation as I would with a brother, a sister, a comrade…which includes accounting for the fact that an interlocutor might not see themselves as such, and so might feel defensive and threatened and even frightened by those with whom he or she disagrees.
We’ve all been taught at various times that to be shown to be wrong, or to admit to being wrong is to fail. We should really be taught that to be wrong is how we fail…but that the remedy for that is to expose our understanding, such as it is, to well-meaning (and sometimes even not so well-meaning) exploration and criticism. This is one of the most crucial arguments for freedom of speech, even speech that we find reprehensible.
If I fall short of the above ideals in the future, I beseech you, my readers, to take me to task.
But do try to be polite.