I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with people on the Internet. Hours. Days. Hundreds of Facebook comments. I’ve been called a ‘lib’, ‘libtard’, ‘typical liberal’ and a host of other names you can find in any Kevin Smith film. On three occasions that I recall, someone I was arguing with changed their mind and thanked me for new information. On fewer occasions than that, the people I was arguing with changed my mind.
In an ongoing debate regarding his book Free Will, Sam Harris said, “In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind.” A good friend of mine who is an ardent atheist has been recently confiding in me his absolute frustration with how otherwise intelligent people can believe in something as silly as a big old man in the sky who created everything.
I recently read this very revealing article about the psychology of irrational fears such as the blanket fear of GMOs. The article basically points out that much of the fear of GMOs is based on emotion rather than fact and that trying to debate fact vs. emotion is a no-win situation because you can tell people something isn’t true but you can’t tell them how they feel isn’t true.
Unfortunately, you’re not likely to have much luck in a debate by saying, “Your opinion is not supported by facts. It’s just emotion and faulty risk assessment.” So that leaves us at a bit of a dead end. If it’s logic vs. emotion and emotion won’t even admit it’s emotion, then we’re stuck. There are also situations where people look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions simply because there isn’t enough evidence to say definitively one way or another what is actually true.
And so we get these loud and long conversations in which neither person gives up until Godwin’s Law is applied and at least one of the two positions is compared to the Nazis. The result is typically that people who already agree with one position or another chime in with their two cents or click ‘like’ on a comment. Perhaps a like-minded individual sends you a friend request or something. But the only thing people tend to ‘learn’ from these discussions is that ‘Some people are morons.’
I don’t have an easy solution for this. I have only one idea. That idea is that we enter into these discussions with a thought most of us are entirely uncomfortable with: For the purposes of the conversation, allow that everything you know is wrong. Allow that just maybe your well informed opinion or thought on the matter as to what is true is somehow misinformed or that other more reliable information exists. Simply go into the conversation thinking that the person you’re talking to has something to teach you.
It’s not always true. There are idiots who have Internet connections and despite their mental deficiency, they still know how to type. I’m not saying you should leave all of your knowledge and common sense at the door. I’m just saying that you should allow for the concept that there’s something you don’t know and that the person you’re talking to might have something worthwhile to share that’s contrary to your current point of view.
I was once pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-gay, and Christian. None of those things are true about me now and that’s because I was allowed that others I encountered might have information I don’t have and they might be right and I might be wrong. If both people in a debate can enter with this mindset, there’s a better chance for learning, growing, and changing.
– Jack Cameron