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Cartoon by Bill Evans
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re having a perfectly normal and wonderful conversation with someone, and all of a sudden, out of left field comes a totally ignorant statement that leaves you taken aback. You know what they’ve said isn’t true. But you don’t know enough to explain why it’s not true. So you stand there, mouth opening and closing like a fish, because you are so shocked and horrified. And since you can’t articulate your point well, your colleague concludes that not only is the earth genuinely flat, but those who believe otherwise are stupid.
I constantly come into conversations with people who say things that are flat out wrong, or say correct things (to both myself and others) in the most patronizing tone of voice that to continue the conversation would be a violation of my personal ethos. There is a way to argue with someone, especially when they’ve made an error in reasoning, without becoming antagonistic yourself. And it’s not in the way you think I’m about to suggest.
You see, you can’t climb into anyone’s head and change their minds for them. And trying to prove why everyone else is wrong might work in a courtroom, but it will alienate you from people who could help you grow as a person. What can you do when you encounter someone being closed minded? Expand your own mind! Take a spoon of your own medicine. Be the change you want to see in the world.
When you face ignorance, sometimes the best way to combat it is by educating yourself and leaving the other person alone! You will get nowhere in life, conversation, or changing the world, if everyone knows you as The Asshole. Oh yes, there is a person in my life whom my friends refer to as The Asshole, and it’s not a super power anyone wants to be around.
Here’s what a member of the Intellegista needs to do so when you’re faced with a bad situation in discourse.
This post clocks in at nearly 2,000 words, so make yourself a cup of tea and come back. What I’m going to be doing is outlining my philosophy on arguing, and what makes an Intellectual different from someone who’s just Smart, and why it’s really important to be the former as opposed to the later. This post is a cornerstone piece to my whole lifestyle philosophy, and I’ve tried to keep it as practical as possible.
The Bad Beginning
Ages ago, I had a conversation with a woman that left me ripping my hair out in a feminist rage. The essential argument that left me picking my jaw off the floor was this: “Women cry a lot because they are women. Strong emotional expressions are innate to the biology and physiology of being a woman. Further, women cry a lot because they have smaller tear ducts than men, so they produce more tears faster.”
The entire conversation was like hearing someone say “2+2=5,” and then you say “No, 2+2=4″ and then they ask you to produce the logical proof to explain yourself. And of course, who carries the logical proof for 2+2=4 around in their back pocket? (It’s really interesting actually, you should check it out.)
When you’re immersed in an idea, it’s easy to take it for granted and assume that the things that make perfect sense to you are axiomatic, when in fact, they’re not. Axiom= a self-evident truth, i.e. if it’s obvious to you, it should be obvious to everyone. And that’s your fatal assumption, my dear Intellectual.
When someone challenges what you view as axiomatic, it’s easy to assume they’re dumb. But unless you can effectively, tactfully and respectfully challenge their views, you’re kinda dumb about that subject too. Remember, being disrespectful while you’re arguing does not a clever person make. What makes genuine intellectuals different from people who are just plain smart is that intellectuals are equally interested in the conversation, and not just the conclusion. Anybody can memorize the right answer, but knowing how to get there is what sets you apart from other Plebeians.
This is what you do when someone makes a claim out of the mouth of babes that has you shaking your head. Ask yourself:
- Does this person seem open to critical thinking? Are they willing to seriously question their views and accept new ideas?
- Is this person using anything similar to evolutionary psychology to defend their views? (Dear lord, I hope not!)
- Does this person allow you to finish your sentences while you’re speaking and ask for clarifications when they don’t understand?
- Does this person even care that they’re wrong?
How you proceed from there is up to you.
If what this person has said is genuinely offensive, and they don’t see why, it’s probably a lost cause to try to enlighten them, especially if all you’re doing is talking, and they’re doing everything but listening. You should still say something to address the offensive statement (the world begins to end the day we become silent about the things that matter!) but in that moment, be an activist, not an intellectual. As an activist, you can just point out the racist/sexist/homophobic/albiest/whatever-ist/ism that they’ve done and move to another circle at the party. It ain’t worth it, and you shouldn’t suffer fools gladly, no matter how intellectual you are!
But if you think it’s worth it to go on, you’ll need to know a few fundamental things about interacting with the world:
1) All self-identified intellectuals should be familiar with at least one Socratic dialogue. (My personal favourite is Meno, although it was The Republic that changed my life.) More than anything else that I’ve ever read and can vouch for, Socratic dialogues will teach you how to have conversations that are genuine inquiries into learning shit and exposing your ignorance. They will help you recognize when a person has convoluted ideas, or made assumptions fatal to their position, and how to work through those convolutions to get to a space of clarity. And when someone makes a statement that they think is the simple end-all, you will learn to recognize the niggly bits that they forgot to consider.
2) You should carry some sort of thought-recording device with them at all times. I don’t go anywhere with my Filofax and trusty purple pen. After conversations like this, you can make notes about what the other person was saying and read up on their points later on.
3) Finally, you should have a trusted team of people that you turn to when you notice huge, flaming gaps in your knowledge of the world. It’s faster than doing years worth of reading on your own (not to say that you shouldn’t do any reading on your own!) and they may lead you to insights you wouldn’t have come to otherwise. Talk to someone you trust about the subject matter to find out more, and be willing to accept that you indeed might have been the one at fault. You cannot claim to be an intellectual if you’re analysing everyone’s thoughts but your own.
4) Sometimes, when people say things, they’re really speaking from an emotional experience that they’re trying to validate, as opposed to a rational, objective thought that they’re worked though. I firmly believe that the reason a lot of people get so emotional about things is because emotions are the only coping mechanism and reasoning faculties they’ve developed for facing conflict. Reasoning should be a part of your emotions, and emotions should be a part of your reasoning, and you should be careful about overusing either one. The thing is though, it would be ridiculous to expect everybody to be an expert about everything they talked about, and that is where compassion during disagreements comes into play. At the end of the day, we all want to feel heard, and if being right means you have to disrespect others, you might want to reconsider your motivations behind victory.
That is my philosophy on arguing as an intelligent person. I’d love to hear you weigh in on what you’d add to the list. Head down to the comment section, and fill me in on your personal adversarial techniques!
Keep these things in mind, and you’ll be totally ready next time you meet a flat-Earth advocate. Good luck!
P.S. Wanna know how I use this philosophy in my own life? Read on!
The Aftermath of My Horror
I thought about the anti-feminist tirade that I had witnessed for days after the incident. I was especially intrigued by the claim that women cry more because they have smaller tear ducts. I talked to professors in 3 different faculties at my school who look at women/gender/feminist issues from a variety of perspectives, read articles on my own, and of course, dug up the tear-duct study that the person was talking about.
When I set out to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge, I learned important (heck, really important) facts about the study that the woman was quoting that I didn’t know before hand. She was partly right about the physiology of women’s tear ducts. But the researchers themselves admitted that the men were most likely underreporting their crying, and that women in the Western world still cry more than men almost entirely due to socialization, despite these new-found biological differences.
From the mouth of the head of research himself: “male tears are the norm and males not crying is recent historical aberration”. (Aberration (n.)- something that deviates from the normal way.) And now, if I’m ever in the same conversation with a different person, I know exactly what to say, and I became smarter in the process.
But more than that, what I learned was that what that woman was really looking for when she said that “women cry because [they're] women” wasn’t intellectual discourse about the role and status of women in the workforce. (Although it would have been awesome if she was.) She was a new mom who had recently started working again after maternity leave, and was facing a new set of understandably overwhelming challenges. When she said what she said, she was looking for validation and camaraderie in her experience.
The issue was in the way she worded it, but it wasn’t until well afterwards that I had the humility to realise that I was much too hard on her when I took her to task. I totally missed an opportunity there to reach out to a person who was clearly struggling with their situation, because she is a human being who deserves compassion, not because she has a vagina.
I then signed up for 3 gender/feminism courses for the fall semester- Gender Issues, Studies in Feminist Philosophy & Sex and Gender Communication. It means I’m going to be graduating a full term later than originally anticipated, but I’d rather take the time to learn these kinds of things than leave a university environment having learned nothing. (Besides, I’d have finished my degree by age 20, and I’m not ready to leave my cocoon!) It is my hope that by the end of my fall semester, I will be well versed in all things feminism and gender.
You see, being an intellectual isn’t about knowing everything and being pompous and antagonistic. Being an intellectual is a lifestyle, in which you are constantly excited about and open to new learning. It’s about constantly keeping your ear to the ground and relishing in the wonders and mysteries of the world about you. It’s about caring, and learning, just for the sake of it. There is an intrinsic value, as well as an instrumental benefit to one’s character, when they choose to swim in the world’s pool of genuine knowledge.
OK, I’m done being cheesy.
Have a great day guys!
Let me know in the comments section the kinds of opportunities you’ve had that exposed you to your own ignorance, and what you read/watched to fill it in!