If only things were that simple. If only events could be packaged into neat containers of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Despite our proclivities towards binary and dualistic thinking, life is a whole lot messier. Many circumstances are morally ambiguous and uncertain.
Being in this metaphorical ‘grey’ area of not knowing can be uncomfortable. We crave certainty and straightforward responses. We are inclined to desperately pick a side of a debate in order to gain a sense of security.
Egocentric and polarized thinking has unfortunately become far too pervasive in our culture. The consequences are becoming more apparent, and are dire. We see it in our civic discourse, on the news, and on heated exchanges on social media. Anger only perpetuates more anger from the other side.
What can be done to help us break out of the cycle?
One answer comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates was notorious for roaming around the town square in ancient Athens and revealing the many inconsistencies of the beliefs of many prominent figures in his day. He was famous for his style of questioning in which he would make people begin to reassess the foundations of their values and beliefs. Socrates wasn’t interested in persuasion, but rather breaking through rigid thought patterns held by others.
His famous sentiment ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’ points to the value of humility and honesty. Humility involves one acknowledging that one’s viewpoint may be wrong. Instead of sternly refusing to change one’s view, the humble person welcomes other perspectives that they may have not considered. Maybe they initially didn’t have all the facts or evidence, or haven’t looked at the issue from a different lens. Moreover, an individual who is humble is able to cultivate a degree of open-mindedness and curiosity.
It may be the case in some instances that people rarely do change their minds. Thus, doesn’t it make sense to try to approach the conversation with an attempt to truly understand the deeper psychological factors influencing another’s viewpoint. Maybe, at a deeper level, you have much more common with someone than you thought. After all, we are all humans guided by many of the same fears, hopes, and desires.
This ‘win at all cost’ mindset stems from our hypercompetitive society. However, this approach to discourse and conversation leads to divineness.
Perhaps we could restore social cohesion with a focus on dialogue rather than debates. Unlike debate, those who enter into dialogue with others don’t start from the assumption that there is only one right answer which must be defended. Moreover, a dialogue is collaborative as opposed to combative. A dialogue is entered with a hope to learn from others allowing one to be open to different and new perspectives.
Think of a debate being similar to a sports game where there is a clear winner or loser. A dialogue resembles musical improvisation where one musician doesn’t aspire to be better than his band mates, but flow and riff off of others. They build on the musical expressions and ideas. They are listening and they are attentive to what the song requires.
Like many I hold opinions and desire to live by my values. I do however want to have the ability to question myself when I feel I am holding too strong convictions. There is wisdom to being wrong. We learn. We grow. We connect to and listen to the knowledge of others.
We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusionsAdam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
If you are interested in my exploration of similar topics you can check out my series on my personal blog: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues – A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life
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