Whence comes intelligent discussion?

During a recent visit to Washington State on the Navy’s dime I had the opportunity to visit an old friend. I used to work for him when I was at Microsoft. We remained friends after I left some six years ago now.

I always enjoy his company because we can talk about every thing under sun regardless of how opposing our views might be. I learned early in our relationship that it was wise to simply admit my ignorance rather than try to argue a position I did not know much about. His critical thinking skills are well above average and he enjoys debate. Early in our relationship I found these discussions somewhat aggravating and frustrating. I guess I took it as a personal affront that he would point out the flaws in my understanding or my argument. I was offended that he would dare to point out that I didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Over time I learned to check my emotions and that made the conversations a lot more fun and interesting. Once I realized that there was little sense in taking affront or becoming angry I found that I always learned something. Either about myself, my position or something new, something I did not know before.

It is interesting to me that being able to divorce one’s emotional self from the topic or position being discussed seems a rare trait. I find that most people want to evade any conversation that encroaches the territory of dissimilar views. This is quite probably the source of the adage that one should never discuss politics, religion or sex in public. I’m pretty happy to leave conversations of sex out of the public eye but our failure to openly discuss our political and religious views — in fact all of the controversial issues — brings with it rather disappointing consequences.

In most of cases that I observe when the conversation comes around to a controversial issue and opposing view are participating in the conversation, the conversation quick disintegrates to name calling, personal attacks and other immature behavior that reflects poorly on otherwise intelligent and mature people. It seems that many people are incapable of divorcing the issues and topics from the individuals. It almost seems to reduce to I can only be friends and hang out with those who believe like I do. A position that works only if you do not delve to deeply into any one individual’s views and beliefs.

Some examples. Most Republicans tell us that Democrats are idiots. Democrats maintain that Republicans are selfish and self-serving as well as not very bright. Most Atheists maintain that all Theists at the very least are in need of a crutch and at the worst do not think for themselves. Christians have the responsibility of sounding like they are true to their faith so they will couch the terms carefully but among themselves they will say that atheists are stupid. The sum of Mac OSX vs Windows vs *NIX discussion is that all computer users are stupid since each group holds that the other groups are obviously not very smart. In nearly every debate of any controversial matter it will at some point be put forward that anyone who does not believe as the speaker does, at the very least, simply has not thought the issue through fully. More often, the speaker simply calls those who do not agree stupid.

What is the point of conversations that degenerate to calling into question an individual’s intelligence? If the point of the conversation is to convince someone of a given position on an issue, calling intelligence into question is a tactic prone to failure. The listener might well concede the point deciding that the issue or at least the position being presented is too complicate to understand. At the very least the listener will note that respect has departed at least one side the conversation. Successful discussion requires mutual respect.

Intelligent exchange of ideas and viewpoints, in my opinion, makes the society we live in a better place. We don’t have to agree with each other. In some cases we will even be put at odds because of our differences. And even in this adversarial relationship, we are better off respecting our opponents than deluding ourselves into believing that they are unintelligent. True idiots seldom raise to a level in society where anyone really cares what they say or think.


Leave a Reply