Monday, 24 November 2014

For Argument's Sake

I recently made the mistake of going back on Facebook - principally to keep in touch with my wife, Emma, who has moved to Canada to be a midwife, while I'm still here in the UK. I know - sounds nuts - more on that another time maybe. Last time I was on FB I got into trouble with the conspiracy guys. A friend of mine who had hitherto seemed a perfectly pleasant though slightly kooky guy suddenly came out as a fan of David Icke, and, not only that, also a denier of Climate Change, Evolution, 9/11, MMR, the moon landings etc etc. I'd not even been aware of this constellation of opinions before but it turns out to be quite common and seems especially well represented on FB. (Don't these people realise that conspiracy theories are invented by the CIA to draw attention away from what's really going on? ;-D) Unfortunately I made the mistake of challenging some of these ideas and got into some fairly intense conversations. It got to the point where I was dreading what I might find when I opened my page in the morning and it made me quite depressed. It was a huge relief when I posted the comment 'I am closing my FB account as it is not good for my mental health'.

This time, I thought, would be different. I could easily avoid the conspiracy nuts and just limit my interaction with a few trusted friends, and my wife of course. Unfortunately I still managed to get into arguments with a couple of them and their circle of friends who regularly post political articles. My contributions were not well received even though I always attempted to be polite and non-confrontational. I was not one of those people who starts their comment with 'That's a pile of bollocks!' or some such. If a record of those conversations exists anywhere you can check back - almost every one began as a question. I was even deferential and self effacing (no, really) politely asking for clarification, or suggesting there might be another interpretation, but it turns out that's almost as much of a provocation. Apparently just asking a question was enough - as if asking 'What makes you think that?' is being heard as 'How the hell could you possibly think that, you moron?' Obviously the fact that you can't see the other person's face or hear the tone of their voice doesn't help, but to simply assume you're being attacked seems idiotic. Alternatively, I found that my comment was simply ignored. I suppose I was especially saddened by the fact that I had taken the people involved to be intelligent and broad-minded, and assumed that since they had raised the point, that they wanted to discuss it - something I really like having the chance to do. But apparently not.
The last exchange was over the situation in Israel which culminated in me being shouted down by a woman with a remarkably uncritical opinion of Israel to say the least. I gave up and left - again.
And again I felt this huge weight lifting off me...

I've thought about all this a lot, not least because it doesn't seem like an isolated occurrence. Part of the problems I've talked about in my last few postings here (This Time it's Personal) have been about not fitting in, and being at odds with others, of not being understood and about bad assumptions being made about what I mean. I've always had this implicit belief that if you can speak quietly and reasonably, ask questions and think about the answers, that you can discuss anything. But apparently not.

I think now I know what my mistake was. As I said, I had assumed that since they had raised the point, that they wanted to discuss it. In fact what was going on was a bunch of people who all broadly thought the same thing were getting together to express those views, and perhaps what I had not understood until then is that that is what people do socially all the time - like-minded individuals getting together to bitch about the world, or about their jobs, or their men, or the government, or whatever. The last thing they want is someone coming along and saying 'Actually, I don't think that's entirely true.' One of the friends in question called it 'banter'. I didn't understand because a lot of what he called 'banter' was far from light-hearted so I couldn't see how I was out of line, but now I understand that in these exchanges you can be as obnoxious as you like, as long as you are going along with the basic premise.
I guess the reason, then, that I don't fit in is because this sort of exchange doesn't seem very interesting.

I've found often that I enjoy talking to Conservatives, Christians and capitalists more than fellow left-wingers. This is not because I agree with them, but because we don't expect to agree so we can have a proper debate. My problem with the cliques I mentioned above is the same as with any kind of fundamentalist - that they are not open to questions. You can only accept their basic premise and then reinforce each-others assumptions with further bits of information or experience.
Am I open to having my views challenged? I hope so. I'm pretty thin-skinned where it comes to contempt, dismissiveness and derision, implied or overt, and respond badly to it - something some take to mean I can't handle criticism, but then some people are just rude - often the very people who are most sensitive to challenges themselves. I also reserve the right to argue back - not just take their criticisms on the chin.

Left-wingers I have to say I often find a bit tedious. Being right wing, to some extent means just doing or saying what works, usually to make money, but it can mean an openness to the views of others that we lefties don't have. Being left wing is always a bit embattled, and to a great extent, I think being left-wing means going against what is simply easy or natural or practical. Being left-wing assumes certain morals (equal opportunities, redistribution of wealth, protection of the environment) that are hard to keep going long term, and which entail a certain amount of moralising and holier-than-thou. Often this comes over as political correctness and an intolerance of anything that even sounds like it might be from the other side. Left-wing people are prone to taking people's words out of context as indications of a more general view and thus dismissing them as racists or homophobes or whatever. For example in the Israel exchange above I was accused of being anti-Jewish because I think the Palestinians' reactions are understandable. Apparently only two positions were admissible - pro Israel or pro Muslim extremism, and since I clearly wasn't in the former camp I must be of the latter. (The guy who said this will probably call this a kick in the teeth, but it's more of a kick in the pants - richly deserved I might add.) I had a similar exchange with my conspiracy nut - the fact that I dared challenge their reading of the events of 9/11 meant I must be an advocate for George Bush and all his works. I've also been accused of being homophobic because I personally find the idea of having sex with a man disgusting. Me - personally. I don't want to have anything to do with anyone's penis. I wasn't saying anything about what other people do or feel. In fact that was the point of the article - to point out how my personal feelings about an act have nothing to do with my views on right and wrong. Many people do not make this distinction - they think just because they don't like the idea of something that nobody should be allowed to do it. People who make this sort of assumption I think just scan the text looking for the bits that seem to fit into the categories they have ready, not even attempting to follow the argument. The best (and silliest) example of this politically right-on sort of pigeon-holing happened during a debate on racism during my (ill-fated) year of teacher training at Brighton Poly back in the 80s. We were talking about the kinds of things racists say and I got called a racist because I knew some of them. Idiotic!
Another friend I managed to upset by asking how people came to be homeless. He worked a lot with homeless people and found my question outrageous - as if I was saying something like 'they should just bloody well pull themselves together and get a job', when actually I really wanted to know.
This is the problem with us left-wing do-gooders. Our views are constantly on the line - from the media, the administrative wonks, businessmen and all Right-minded tax-paying patriots, and we probably spent much of our childhoods being told we were unrealistic and difficult by our families and teachers. We're on the defensive. We expect attack. But it's no excuse.

I'm aware that this article could come over as somewhat smug. Look at how open and tolerant I am! Asking questions and giving due consideration to the other person's opinions. Aren't I great?
Well, in all honesty I do think my way of thinking is unusual - hardly unique, but unusual. One of the conspiracy guys said, after a fairly heated but futile exchange about how the Twin Towers collapsed 'I've never met anyone like you' and I wanted to say 'You mean not completely credulous? You mean interested in reason and evidence?' I do like thinking - just for the heck of it. It interests me, and I have a sort of internal klaxon that goes off when I find my thoughts are based on dodgy or free-hanging assumptions, things like free-will, fairness and the importance of reason (which is not to say we can live without such assumptions - only that it's good to know what they are and to treat them with caution). Other people seem, shall we say, less vigilant. They just have their opinions, based on whatever assumptions they happen to have for whatever reason and everything they think is built out of that, and, I have to say, that's probably a more practical way of being than mine, but I'm not sure it's good enough when the really big questions are at stake.

Philosophy has had a bad rap of late but the course I actually ended up doing at Brighton Poly back in the 80s was a combined humanities BA and although it sounds like one of those Mickey Mouse lefty extravagances of that period I truly believe it was a hugely worthwhile thing to be able to do. I followed a theme (called Ideas of Human Nature, run by Bob Brecher) which might be called applied philosophy, where, instead of plodding through all the big names, starting with Plato, we looked at various modern issues (communism, psychoanalysis, feminism, evolution etc etc) using a philosophical approach, and I think I've been thinking about the questions raised ever since. I can't say it ever got me a job but that's not the point. I was known toward the end (not with admiration) as 'Little Bob' by one of my cattier comrades because I was so into the ideas but what she thought was just toadying was actually a strong affinity between the person I was before, who wanted to think things through but didn't have the mental framework and the approach to issues in the course. Another term for it would be critical thinking. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that one of the most dangerous things about the way people are is certainty. I believe in doubt. When you reach an opinion (as you must, or you'd never get anything done) you should still be aware that your opinion is only ever a provisional construction of the real situation. You can judge it to be better than the one you had before, or consider it better than the ones offered by other people but you should never consider it finished or certain. The ultimate nature of my existence, sat in this room typing, may be unknowable but I think it is almost certainly more true that I am sat at a table than at a tapir. My further education in science reinforced this view because science is not a revealed truth or set of eternal precepts as some (scientists and non-scientists) often imagine but a set of provisional explanations - always and intrinsically open to doubt and question and new evidence, or it should be. More damage is done by people with certainty, or at least, not questioning, than anything else.

Unfortunately business and politics rewards people who come over as knowing exactly what they are doing. We like a strong leader - someone who is always sure of what's what, even though, given a moments thought, we know that would be inhuman. We fall for the old self-confidence trick every time and we don't like people who cast doubts. This is what our preoccupation with the personalities of politics is all about, because grappling with the actual issues is so complicated and time-consuming. It's so much easier to base your opinion on whether Ed Milliband or Nick Clegg or whoever looks the part than if what they say makes sense. I find this very sad.

When I was a little boy my dad used to tell me the stories of Hans Christian Anderson (a capella - not from a book) and his favourite was The Emperor's New Clothes - a perfect parable about the pricking of pretension and delusion by the unfettered mind, only old Hans got it wrong. In my version the child shouts out 'The Emperor has no clothes!' but the crowd frowns on him and his parents shush him and lead him away and chastise him for embarrassing them and probably (in true fable style) give him a good hiding when they get home.

Many decisions of course can only be, for the most part, a matter of personal feeling - of instinct, intuition or gut reaction (where to live, who to love, what job to take) but of those few that are not, some are more true than others, and we have a responsibility to at least try to unpick what is going on in a dispassionate and disinterested way. But above all, when it comes to it, we should never allow ourselves to stand there and say we know The Truth, because almost certainly, we don't, and almost certainly, there are people in the audience who know you don't know and you will look stupid, and shouting them down or punching them out will not change that. It'll only make you look even more stupid.


Steve Law said...

Just heard this on the intro to the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 - too apt to omit -

"Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
John F. Kennedy

Steve Law said...

A clarification -
"It sounds to me that you are at odds with the way others see the world, those people you cannot fit in with. In other words, you are right, the others are wrong."
My reaction to this will sound arrogant, but yes I do think people I disagree with are wrong and I am right. Don't we all? That's what disagreement means. If we have any opinions at all (other than those that are entirely a matter of personal preference) why would we bother to hold them if we did not think they were better than others? What would be wrong would be for me to fail or refuse to take into account any new information that might modify or overturn my opinion. I think my opinion is right, given the information I have and the way I have thought about it, but I might come across new evidence, or a new way of thinking about it at any time, by reading or thinking or talking to other people, and I believe I should be ready (and pleased) to assimilate the new information. In short, as I have said, I do think there is an objective 'reality' or 'truth' out there. It may be that we have only got to (say) a 3 or 4% understanding of it, but 4 is better than 3 and twice as much as 2.

"It seems to me that you are setting up a false choice: a) the others see the world wrongly and yet I try to fit in with them (swallowing my own principles) ; b) the others see the world wrongly but I will forever confront their wrongness, and to hell with fitting in or not. Option (b) sounds the nobler option, if it is not better described as pig-headed masochism. "
I think many people see the world wrongly, but I hardly ever confront them or even judge them for it and many of them I really like. It's only in situations where there is ostensibly a debate going on that I even try. I certainly don't think less of people just because I disagree with them. I might think they are a bit daft for believing this or that, but I expect they feel the same way about me. My complaint about the people in the essay that started all this was not that they didn't agree with me. I don't expect people to agree with me. I do expect friends to take my opinion seriously, and perhaps even concede that I might have a point, not just dismiss me out of hand or shout me down because my opinion doesn't fit.