SocietySpiegeloog 409: Conflict

Embracing the Fire

By January 13, 2021No Comments

What do you think about the gender pay gap? Would you ever vote for Thierry Baudet? Or for Trump? Given that you’re reading this, there is a high chance that you have a strong opinion on these issues. I assume you have also had a few disagreements with others about contentious issues such as those – did they go well?

What do you think about the gender pay gap? Would you ever vote for Thierry Baudet? Or for Trump? Given that you’re reading this, there is a high chance that you have a strong opinion on these issues. I assume you have also had a few disagreements with others about contentious issues such as those – did they go well?

If you’ve had similar experiences as me, you’ve had at least a few discussions that ended in quite an unfruitful and frustrating manner. Why? Discussing difficult issues can be enriching, inspire new ideas, foster critical thinking and much more, but often it doesn’t. What distinguishes discussions that go well from those that don’t?

To answer this question, let’s have a look at how different people approach a conversation about a controversial issue. The scenario is simple: let’s assume you’re at a party having a chat with a couple of people you’ve just met when some contentious topic (e.g., political views) comes up. How will your fellow party goers react? Similar to how political philosopher Jason Brennan (2016) has classified three different types of voters, I think there are three different arguers.

First, there are hobbits: people who just don’t care. Like Tolkien’s barefooted little humans, they live in their own happy world without giving too much thought to the contentious issue that just came up. Most of the time, they don’t hold any opinion about the issue, and if they do, they don’t hold it strongly. If you have a conversation with a hobbit, it’s rare to get into a conflict simply because they are not interested in the relevant topic that has a potential for conflict. Instead, the conversation will probably be about work, sport, leisure, or other relatively superficial things.

“If two hooligans have the same opinion, they will happily stay in their bubble and celebrate their self-righteousness.”

Next, there are hooligans: people who have a fixed set of opinions on the issue and argue passionately for their point of view while disregarding opposing arguments for the most part. To them, it’s absolutely clear that they are correct in their views. The belief that they are right is not a conclusion they draw after the discussion, but a premise they already hold before going into the discussion. Rather than honestly trying to find the truth, the objective is to convince you. In their eyes, if you disagree with them, it’s because you are stupid, uninformed, or evil. If two hooligans have the same opinion, they will happily stay in their bubble and celebrate their self-righteousness.

The final group are the Vulcans. They are aware that they might be biased towards certain viewpoints and they actively try to avoid these biases. They approach the topic in a rational way and seek evidence that contradicts their views. In a conversation, their goal is finding the truth; and if that means that their initial viewpoints are wrong, they are willing to change them. If you disagree with them, they might consider the possibility that you know something they don’t. If two Vulcans have the same opinion, one of them will automatically adopt an opposing viewpoint to keep the conversation interesting and to illuminate the complexities of the topic.

Given these descriptions, it’s clear which encounters will lead to an intellectually enriching discussion and which ones will lead to a pointless conflict. Now you might be wondering: How does the pointless conflict arise, exactly? To me, it seems that on a fundamental level the cause is the hooligan’s absolute certainty that they are correct, which leads them to throw any argument at you irrespective of whether it’s valid or not. In other words, whether or not a specific argument supports the hooligan’s position takes precedence over its quality. But let’s have a look at a few examples.

“If Stalin had said that 1 + 1 equals 2, he would have been right about that.”

When I was a bachelor’s student, I had a long discussion with a fellow PPLE student. At some point, I cited a well-known study that had recently been published by Science, and which supported my point. ‘That’s a Jordan Peterson argument!’, she exclaimed, as this would somehow invalidate the point. After this, I spent considerable time (without success) explaining why arguments don’t change their validity depending on the person who said it (except if the person is the argument). If Stalin had said that 1 + 1 equals 2, he would have been right about that; and if Gandhi had said that Rome is the capital of the Netherlands, he would have been wrong about that. To me, the separation between the argument and the person making it is so obvious that I could hardly convince myself to write about it. Yet, for a member of the supposed ‘intellectual elite’ it wasn’t obvious at all.

Another behaviour I see regularly is an attack without justification. ‘I see you are not well-informed on this issue. You should learn more about this topic before you talk about it.’ ‘Congratulations for the dumbest viewpoint of the year!’ ‘You can’t really be that dumb to believe such a thing, can you?’ What do all of these statements have in common? They criticize the opponent without giving any reasons. I encountered all of these sentences in real life and none of the people uttering them added a ‘because’ to their sentences. Saying that a certain viewpoint is dumb without explaining why it is dumb is worse than saying nothing at all. Yet, lots of people I know – hooligans – are doing it all the while feeling pretty amazing about themselves.

Last but not least, there’s the appeal to anger. Just because the conversational partner gets angry, upset or offended by an argument, this doesn’t make the argument false. Whatever a person may feel, it is independent of the argument (except if the feeling is the argument). Sure, not all truths are pretty, but true they are, nonetheless. Yet, many people refuse to listen. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try criticizing religious doctrine in front of a devout believer and see what happens (more so in some religions than in others…).

That last point also opens up the question: To what extent should controversial or offensive arguments be avoided? Of course, there is no point in saying something just because it’s offensive, but this is not what the question is about. Rather, imagine you are having a discussion on a sensitive topic, and you know that the argument you are about to make could upset the other person. Should you make the argument? More generally, should we strive for a world in which no things are said that could potentially hurt someone, or for a world in which everyone can speak their mind, however controversial their opinion?

Believe it or not, there are quite a few people arguing for the former. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) illustrate, various regulations at several universities attempt to create a certain kind of safe space in which students are not confronted with ideas and arguments they might find offensive. The assumption is that humans are emotionally fragile, and so there is a necessity for university policies that protect students from potentially hurtful ideas.

There are many reasons why this view is profoundly mistaken, but the most obvious is that human minds are not fragile. A glass is fragile – you throw it on the floor, and it breaks. A steel ball, on the contrary, is robust. If you throw it on the floor it won’t break, but it doesn’t improve, either. Human minds, however, are different altogether. They are, in the words of Nassim Taleb (2012), antifragile. If you expose them to adversity, they don’t break but they become stronger – in fact, adversity is even necessary for them to improve. Just like a child’s immune system needs to be confronted with bacteria from the outside world to develop properly, a human mind needs to be challenged by different perspectives. If you are in clinical psychology, this is certainly nothing new for you – cognitive behavioural therapy rests on the same principle. Similar to how you won’t cure a bird phobia by shielding the person from birds all the time, you won’t do any good by protecting a person from views they disagree with.

Personally, I have a rule of not being offended, no matter what the other person will say. Not only have I noticed that it makes rational discussions more efficient because the conversational partner doesn’t have to hold back in their arguments, but it has positive consequences on more intimate relationships as well. In my experience, the rule of not being offended creates the actual “safe space” that those relationships need. Because my friends and family know that they can talk to me about anything and that I won’t get upset about it, – even if it’s something I don’t want to hear. How could I be there for them, how could I improve, if it weren’t possible to talk openly and honestly with me?

If you, dear reader, ever happen to cross paths with me, I expect you to tell me how crappy my articles are. Tell me that my articles are garbage and that they should be flushed down the drain. But – and this is the hard part – please don’t be a hooligan. Tell me why exactly my articles are wrong. Which argument doesn’t work? Which point do you disagree with and why? And please don’t say that I’m wrong because I’m a terrible person. Because it wouldn’t change anything even if it were true.

References

– Brennan, J. (2016). Against Democracy. Princeton University Press
– Lukianoff, G. & Haidth, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Books.
– Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House Incorporated.

If you’ve had similar experiences as me, you’ve had at least a few discussions that ended in quite an unfruitful and frustrating manner. Why? Discussing difficult issues can be enriching, inspire new ideas, foster critical thinking and much more, but often it doesn’t. What distinguishes discussions that go well from those that don’t?

To answer this question, let’s have a look at how different people approach a conversation about a controversial issue. The scenario is simple: let’s assume you’re at a party having a chat with a couple of people you’ve just met when some contentious topic (e.g., political views) comes up. How will your fellow party goers react? Similar to how political philosopher Jason Brennan (2016) has classified three different types of voters, I think there are three different arguers.

First, there are hobbits: people who just don’t care. Like Tolkien’s barefooted little humans, they live in their own happy world without giving too much thought to the contentious issue that just came up. Most of the time, they don’t hold any opinion about the issue, and if they do, they don’t hold it strongly. If you have a conversation with a hobbit, it’s rare to get into a conflict simply because they are not interested in the relevant topic that has a potential for conflict. Instead, the conversation will probably be about work, sport, leisure, or other relatively superficial things.

“If two hooligans have the same opinion, they will happily stay in their bubble and celebrate their self-righteousness.”

Next, there are hooligans: people who have a fixed set of opinions on the issue and argue passionately for their point of view while disregarding opposing arguments for the most part. To them, it’s absolutely clear that they are correct in their views. The belief that they are right is not a conclusion they draw after the discussion, but a premise they already hold before going into the discussion. Rather than honestly trying to find the truth, the objective is to convince you. In their eyes, if you disagree with them, it’s because you are stupid, uninformed, or evil. If two hooligans have the same opinion, they will happily stay in their bubble and celebrate their self-righteousness.

The final group are the Vulcans. They are aware that they might be biased towards certain viewpoints and they actively try to avoid these biases. They approach the topic in a rational way and seek evidence that contradicts their views. In a conversation, their goal is finding the truth; and if that means that their initial viewpoints are wrong, they are willing to change them. If you disagree with them, they might consider the possibility that you know something they don’t. If two Vulcans have the same opinion, one of them will automatically adopt an opposing viewpoint to keep the conversation interesting and to illuminate the complexities of the topic.

Given these descriptions, it’s clear which encounters will lead to an intellectually enriching discussion and which ones will lead to a pointless conflict. Now you might be wondering: How does the pointless conflict arise, exactly? To me, it seems that on a fundamental level the cause is the hooligan’s absolute certainty that they are correct, which leads them to throw any argument at you irrespective of whether it’s valid or not. In other words, whether or not a specific argument supports the hooligan’s position takes precedence over its quality. But let’s have a look at a few examples.

“If Stalin had said that 1 + 1 equals 2, he would have been right about that.”

When I was a bachelor’s student, I had a long discussion with a fellow PPLE student. At some point, I cited a well-known study that had recently been published by Science, and which supported my point. ‘That’s a Jordan Peterson argument!’, she exclaimed, as this would somehow invalidate the point. After this, I spent considerable time (without success) explaining why arguments don’t change their validity depending on the person who said it (except if the person is the argument). If Stalin had said that 1 + 1 equals 2, he would have been right about that; and if Gandhi had said that Rome is the capital of the Netherlands, he would have been wrong about that. To me, the separation between the argument and the person making it is so obvious that I could hardly convince myself to write about it. Yet, for a member of the supposed ‘intellectual elite’ it wasn’t obvious at all.

Another behaviour I see regularly is an attack without justification. ‘I see you are not well-informed on this issue. You should learn more about this topic before you talk about it.’ ‘Congratulations for the dumbest viewpoint of the year!’ ‘You can’t really be that dumb to believe such a thing, can you?’ What do all of these statements have in common? They criticize the opponent without giving any reasons. I encountered all of these sentences in real life and none of the people uttering them added a ‘because’ to their sentences. Saying that a certain viewpoint is dumb without explaining why it is dumb is worse than saying nothing at all. Yet, lots of people I know – hooligans – are doing it all the while feeling pretty amazing about themselves.

Last but not least, there’s the appeal to anger. Just because the conversational partner gets angry, upset or offended by an argument, this doesn’t make the argument false. Whatever a person may feel, it is independent of the argument (except if the feeling is the argument). Sure, not all truths are pretty, but true they are, nonetheless. Yet, many people refuse to listen. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try criticizing religious doctrine in front of a devout believer and see what happens (more so in some religions than in others…).

That last point also opens up the question: To what extent should controversial or offensive arguments be avoided? Of course, there is no point in saying something just because it’s offensive, but this is not what the question is about. Rather, imagine you are having a discussion on a sensitive topic, and you know that the argument you are about to make could upset the other person. Should you make the argument? More generally, should we strive for a world in which no things are said that could potentially hurt someone, or for a world in which everyone can speak their mind, however controversial their opinion?

Believe it or not, there are quite a few people arguing for the former. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) illustrate, various regulations at several universities attempt to create a certain kind of safe space in which students are not confronted with ideas and arguments they might find offensive. The assumption is that humans are emotionally fragile, and so there is a necessity for university policies that protect students from potentially hurtful ideas.

There are many reasons why this view is profoundly mistaken, but the most obvious is that human minds are not fragile. A glass is fragile – you throw it on the floor, and it breaks. A steel ball, on the contrary, is robust. If you throw it on the floor it won’t break, but it doesn’t improve, either. Human minds, however, are different altogether. They are, in the words of Nassim Taleb (2012), antifragile. If you expose them to adversity, they don’t break but they become stronger – in fact, adversity is even necessary for them to improve. Just like a child’s immune system needs to be confronted with bacteria from the outside world to develop properly, a human mind needs to be challenged by different perspectives. If you are in clinical psychology, this is certainly nothing new for you – cognitive behavioural therapy rests on the same principle. Similar to how you won’t cure a bird phobia by shielding the person from birds all the time, you won’t do any good by protecting a person from views they disagree with.

Personally, I have a rule of not being offended, no matter what the other person will say. Not only have I noticed that it makes rational discussions more efficient because the conversational partner doesn’t have to hold back in their arguments, but it has positive consequences on more intimate relationships as well. In my experience, the rule of not being offended creates the actual “safe space” that those relationships need. Because my friends and family know that they can talk to me about anything and that I won’t get upset about it, – even if it’s something I don’t want to hear. How could I be there for them, how could I improve, if it weren’t possible to talk openly and honestly with me?

If you, dear reader, ever happen to cross paths with me, I expect you to tell me how crappy my articles are. Tell me that my articles are garbage and that they should be flushed down the drain. But – and this is the hard part – please don’t be a hooligan. Tell me why exactly my articles are wrong. Which argument doesn’t work? Which point do you disagree with and why? And please don’t say that I’m wrong because I’m a terrible person. Because it wouldn’t change anything even if it were true.

References

– Brennan, J. (2016). Against Democracy. Princeton University Press
– Lukianoff, G. & Haidth, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Books.
– Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House Incorporated.
Valentin Weber

Author Valentin Weber

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