On Modern Argument

Being honest with myself, I am often the person who struggles to pay attention to the conversation until it is again my turn to talk. We are all selfish — it’s the human survival strategy, after all, so can we be blamed? — and that always comes out in the ways we interact with each other.

But we need to be careful about this. Humans need to prioritize themselves to make sure they and their kin survive and succeed, but they also have to learn to work together. Just like cells in an organism will cooperate because they are better off as a multicellular being than a single-celled organism, humans usually thrive when they work together.

Power in numbers is a fact, but one that we have had to actively work for continuously. Since we diverged from chimps millions of years ago, and even before then, we primates have been working hard on our social strategy. Humans are remarkably good at identifying minute facial expressions, for example, and that’s no accident. It’s because natural selection determined that those of us who could work together better were the ones who would succeed when living in the brutal wilderness.

There are a multitude of ways we could all work together better, any one of which can be implemented in endless situations. So it can get complicated. But, simply stated: let’s all be more patient with each other. Patience means we have allowed ourselves more time to listen, and listening breeds understanding.

What exactly am I talking about? When you encounter someone you disagree with, I implore you to take a mental step back and approach the situation carefully before you begin to take things personally. I take things personally, too. But the discussion of ideas is more important than your ego. It’s an opportunity to learn. Even if the other person is absolutely wrong, you can learn about another perspective, and get a better grasp on why people think differently than you.

Learning why others think differently than you is the first step to convincing others that your perspective is right. It may also open the door to learning something that might change your opinion.

Deep down, you might not want to listen because you’re afraid of being wrong yourself. We are afraid of being wrong because that means having to deal with the unknown. “I thought I had all the facts,” you might think. “I thought it was all settled and understood.”

But ask yourself: would you rather be comfortable and wrong, or uncomfortable and right?

The answer you give to this question, I think, will say a lot about you.

Listening to each other — and paying real attention to yourself and your own beliefs, too — is just the beginning — and perhaps the end. But there are a lot of steps in between. Modern argument is truly flawed, because we all think we know everything, myself included. It’s possible to be wrong, it’s possible to get the wrong information, and it’s possible to be lied to. This era is no different from any other in that our information can still be incorrect. There is just a lot more of it.

Something else new about this modern period: the medium through which we share thought has dramatically changed! We don’t sit at tables with strangers in a coffee shop anymore. That time is long gone. Now we share ideas over the internet. Obviously. But the problem with this new means of meeting strangers is that it’s far more public than a coffee shop or a town square. Hundreds of millions of people can view that conversation you’re having with an opponent in the Twitter replies.

So now, if you seek to have a real, honest, truth-seeking discussion with someone, and perhaps you even want to change their mind, you can’t do this in public. You must do this privately — via direct messages, for example. When a discussion is being had in front of such a potentially large audience, there is an inherent conflict of interest that involves pride and impressing others.

When others can see what we say, we can automatically become like a middle school bully in a hallway. We want to make an example and make ourselves look good, even if it means putting down a stranger — and what do we have to lose by insulting an anonymous person, anyway? This can lead to very childlike behaviour.

From now on, I intend to listen better, ask more questions, and above all, have the discussion privately. You shouldn’t have anything to prove to thousands of other people when you are trying to have a conversation with one person. This is how ideas are exchanged healthily, and if we could all do this, maybe we’d be a little less polarized.