Part of life, I take it, is swallowing straight the certainty of spending time with people whose views you may find abhorrent. Their preferred orthodoxies are lighted by different experts and uncontested powers, and as we impatiently engage each other, both parties can’t help but feel small. I will always think about our interactions in this moment, the potency and desperation of our yearning for agreement. We lean forward, jaws set, eyes narrow, searching other faces for a semblance of understanding, some crease of shared conviction. Often, we fall short, and I find myself in a murky surmise regarding how we ought to process opinions we perceive as unjustified or redolent of bigotry. What follows is a series of endlessly accumulating paradoxes that, like high school gossip, are both wickedly alluring and profoundly threatening.
Upon building close relationships with one another, our own ideologies become largely derivative of those around us – not because we have, as John Shwenkler puts it, “learned that these ideas might be correct, but because the time spent encountering these ideas and pretending to embrace them might cause us to unlearn, at least to a degree, some of what we presently understand about the world.” Indeed, the frequency of our interactions with others imperiously demands agreement, but where should we draw the line? When should we balk, without apology, at our intellectual opposition, and when do we invite an amicable exchange of ideas?
What scares me is the potential loss of knowledge or understanding – if we reject the ideological presuppositions of someone else we find despicable, merely because we feel that catering to them would be disadvantageous to our cognitive perspective, are we any better? I was consciously drawn in by Shwenkler’s use of an example, and I will take the time to offer my own.
Imagine a male student, resistant to the reality of workplace discrimination, considering a course on gender studies. Suppose this person refuses to enroll on the sour grounds that doing so would spawn an incipient realization that gender-based discrimination does exist, and so to protect his fragile basis of thought, he recuses himself from participation in the course. Willingly, he remains deaf to the academic noise that would crack the brittle glass of his principles. This is, in every sense, a humiliating way to think, right? To break bread with this person would roll me into a cold stupor, counting the leaky breaths and waning minutes till my departure. But truthfully, what is the difference between this person and me if I had refused a meeting because of the possibility of damaging my own principles and values? Aren’t we both guilty of the same dogmatic, close-minded hypocrisies? Today’s ramble then, is about drawing attention to this mental caution with which we wearily approach any sort of ideological exchange.
Interestingly, this thickly callused dilemma is avertable, and I believe a resolution lies in the development of an important skill – the patience to read and engage with ideas that we may not understand, appreciate, or be entirely welcoming of. Upon doing so, we endeavor to pursue truth instead of merely trading ideas as part of competing intellectual factions. And this is the important distinction to make – knowing you are right and believing you are right are grossly different mindsets, and yet repeatedly recycled as equivalent. The hope is that, in knowing you are right, a way would be found both to experience stimulating disagreement and measurable intellectual growth.
If we know that a battery of thoughts is misleading, pretentious, or false, then reject them, and with a few clever remarks, convince your implacable opposition of otherwise. But if we instead thud away at each with our inherently subjective beliefs, prepared to carry our intellectual grudges to the edge of conflict, our perspectives are mutually diluted by suspicion and close-mindedness. As Shwenkler summarizes, “the person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.”
There are indefinitely many ideas parallel to a given one, none of them ever intersecting and all of them ingloriously pursuing a receding boundary of truth. If finding the right answer is nearly an asymptotic journey, let’s not make it any worse by resorting to the stubborn assumption that a louder voice and more popular belief implies superiority of thought.