In 2012, Michael Shammas wrote for the Huffington Post regarding why it is a good idea to teach philosophy to High School kids. As he stated, “Anger is everywhere; understanding is nowhere.”
Here we are in 2017 and those words still ring true. You can log onto pretty much any social media platform and you’re inundated with vitriol. What’s more disturbing, is that you rarely see any effort from either party involved to understand the position of the other side. What you tend to see is a back-and-forth filled with generalizations, mischaracterizations, strawmen and outright insults.
What happened to us? What happened to civil discourse?
Shammas in his 2012 article suggests that we have lost the ability to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. I would agree that is true for some of us. However, I’m going to suggest that for others, it’s simply hubris. Feeling “right” outweighs being “right” and sometimes, it outweighs truth itself.
Some of us feel that we are so “right” that we cannot be wrong. It’s an impossibility. In fact, if anyone suggests otherwise, that’s a slap to our pride. Certainly, we can’t be wrong! That’s blasphemy! Truly, if someone had the temerity to think differently or have a different perspective, they’re not only wrong, but they’re immoral. There’s something wrong with them. They’re evil. They’re the enemy.
If people who disagree with us are wrong, immoral, and the enemy, why would we actually take the time to get to know them? Why would we try to understand why they think they way they do? So, let’s just retreat to our respective echo chambers where we can pat each other on the back for being superior to those people. Let’s laugh and sneer at the knuckle-dragging rubes who think differently than we do. After all, we’re the enlightened ones, right?
So, if we can’t get to know someone who thinks differently than us, or worse yet, we don’t believe they are worth the time to get to know, what happens? There’s no way we can truly understand what they believe or why they believe it, in fact, most of the time, we don’t want to know. It’s stupid and wrong anyway so why waste our precious time? So we mischaracterize and generalize. Heck, even laugh at their apparent stupidity all the while being oblivious to the fact that mischaracterization often leads to demonization, which leads to passive and then active oppression.
It has been amazing to see how quickly so many who claimed to revile tribalism devolve into tribalism off of nothing more than their own arrogance.
There is a way out of his mess. It’s tough. It takes time and it requires becoming invested in people we may disagree with passionately. If we wish to wade into the battle of ideas, it is vitally important that we take the time to understand what the competing ideas are and accurately represent them. If we do not, we will quickly lose all credibility and we will lose traction in promoting our own ideas or philosophy because we’ve lost that credibility. We’ll only be adding to the background noise while other ideas and philosophies move forward with their agendas.
For example: if I started to criticize Islam, but it became apparent rather quickly that I have never studied the Quran, nor have I ever picked up the Hadith or talked to a Muslim, why should anyone take me seriously? If it’s made clear, once I exit my echo chamber, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, how can I expect to maintain any credibility whatsoever? I may be able to acquire some popularity with those who know less than I do, but it’s a transient popularity at best. My ill-gained popularity, as well as whatever philosophy or idea I was trying to promote, will simply be destined for the trash heap of history. Forgotten and impotent.
Plus, it’s important to learn about other perspectives because it’s just part of being a good neighbor. If I expect someone to treat my ideas fairly, and when criticizing them, accurately represent my position, I must do that for others. Well, I guess I don’t have to, but there’s a word for that kind of attitude and it starts with “hypo” and ends with “crite”.
So what do we do? I suggest there are two ways we can accomplish this: the first, we start to create and maintain relationships with those who disagree with us. Break bread with them. Pick their brains. Ask them about their beliefs and why they believe what they do. Take time to listen to them and really understand them so you can accurately represent their position. Again, you don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But don’t rob them of their humanity by turning them and what they believe into a caricature. Second, study first; talk later. That’s right. Read books. Lots of them. YouTube and Google may be a good place to start, but it’s no substitute for actual research and study. Go to the sources. Read the documents that are central to a philosophy, political movement or a religion. Whatever you’re trying to criticize, you need to know it at least as well as anyone who adheres to what you’re attempting to criticize.
Also, we should read books that are critical of what we believe. To quote Christian apologist Andy Bannister, “…being willing to put what you currently believe to the test. For instance, what books have you read by those who disagree with you? If you’re an atheist and the very most you’ve ever read from a Christian is The Pop-up Book of Creationism, all the while lining your bookshelves with well-referenced works of atheism, I suggest you’re not really thinking, but living in an echo chamber.”
Let me ask you a question, dear reader; how do you expect your ideas or philosophy to win the “battle of ideas” if you don’t understand or care what the competing ideas or philosophies are to being with?
If we’re not prepared to take seriously the kinds of things that people believe in, then perhaps with all humility, we should simply stick to talking about TV shows, dating apps and celebrities. Because anything beyond that is just noise.