When We Cannot Reason Together

688px-Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle

Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

14 thoughts on “When We Cannot Reason Together

  1. What a thoughtful rumination! We must attempt to persuade by example, “turning the other cheek.” The alternative is, as your inquiring suggests, a culture of suicide. We must honor basic norms, of courtesy, of civility, of inclusiveness. Anger, hostility, tribalism takes us to dead ends. Amen to all you say and propose! I wish I had additional (partial) answers. I fear that the voices of the sane and caring will be overwhelmedl

    • Laura, this is a good reminder. The difficulty is that neither of us has the platform that so many of the truly “fake news” sites have. Perhaps one other practice I could have mentioned is verifying political claims, as well as stories from fringe news sites.

  2. For me it’s frustrating when you talk to someone and you know they’re just being polite, and have no intention of doing anything about what you’re saying. They nod and wait patiently, and when I finish my point, they either change the subject or just let the pause stretch until I’m like “so anyway…” This happens often with my students who already have an idea of how they should learn a language, and aren’t really open to trying something new, maybe something that goes against what they believe is the “correct” way to learn a language.

    Maybe this says more about me than it does about them. Maybe I come across as unreasonable. Why do you think this might happen?

    • I wonder if this is often a result of people not being present to each other. In our multi-tasking, frantic world, we often split our attention and don’t really hear the other well. I also wonder if students often feel they have to project a greater competence than they have–an “I’ve got this” attitude. In graduate studies there is the whole “imposter syndrome” thing where we have a hard time admitting what we don’t know. Some off the top of my head thoughts–any of that make sense?

      • That does make a lot of sense. I teach over the phone and often I hear the student typing or I hear their phone buzzing in the background. Even if they’re not answering texts, they’re still getting those distractions.

        I like what you said about projecting competence. I see that all over the place in my students. Do you have any suggestions for how to get around that or speak through it? I feel that my tactics right now are very brute force (writing down every mistake they make to show them how many mistakes they make, for example).

        That’s actually why I started my blog – to be able to send articles that directly address the things I hear all the time, without wasting class time. But even then, only maybe 20% of the students actually apply what I tell them.

        Thanks for your observations!

  3. Two things:
    You say, “is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?” I would say, for some, that is the goal. Some seem to have taken the approach that if you don’t side with them completely, you don’t deserve a voice. That’s dangerous and they don’t realize how they’re contributing to the creation of silos and echo chambers, much as they rail against that very thing about the other side.

    Secondly, I can remember a time when someone would read or hear something they disagreed with, they could do so and move on without launching into a diatribe accusing the other of some sort of -ism. People could actually read or hear a different opinion, note that it didn’t apply in all cases, and move on with their lives. Of course, this was before social media, but there was still letters to the editors and call-in radio shows where people could vent. But as I write this, I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is the ease, availability, and immediacy of social media. With the other forms of communication that I mentioned, there was always time involved as well as a gatekeeper. Not all editorials got published and not all callers get through on radio shows. But with social media, which so many people have ready access to, the top of the mind, potentially inflammatory comment is as near as the phone in their hands. Self-editing and reflection be damned! I “have” to let this idiot know how stupid and wrong they are! The future of humanity rests on it! (insert eye roll and heavy sigh).

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful response to my post. I’ve been swamped all day with other work but thinking about what you wrote. I do find that the quality of comments on a blog are generally much higher on Facebook, which seems to encourage drive-by pontificating. Like you, I’m baffled as to why people think it depends on them to comment, usually some counter statement not amenable to real discussion. I find it puzzling that a number who do this really don’t do much on their own profiles and use social media for argumentative posting with others. It troubles me how vicious we can be with people we don’t know–they are not just usernames. The medium, as you observe, lends itself to this. As I’ve kept reflecting on this, I do believe that it is right to moderate what goes on on my own page. I can delete comments, block, and unfriend, and wonder if at times, I’ve allowed people to take advantage of my Midwest Niceness. I want to have genuine conversations where we ask each other to articulate why we think the way we do, with the aim of understanding, or even persuading the other. But that presumes people open to learn and grow. Someone who just wants to counter, hi-jack or troll doesn’t belong in the same social space as others who really want to engage. It occurs to me in many of these situations, the question, “what evidence would you need to change your mind?” is a good test. If they are unwilling or unable to articulate this, we are wasting our time. Thanks so much for writing and thinking with me about these things!

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