by Bernat Font
I wrote it on a sheet I had torn from my ‘thinking notebook’ and I stuck it on the corkboard in my room. It reads: What if discussions were not about arguing, refuting and convincing?
This argumentative habit is tattooed on to us by the needle of our education. We don’t see the skin underneath it any longer. I’m not questioning the wonders of critical thinking, but the reactivity and lack of awareness with which we engage in mental and communicative patterns. We listen to find fault, we exaggerate the positions of others, we look for that one example in which what P said does not work, so we can disagree or invalidate.
If I live in the plane of absolutes, when I find those examples I will discard P’s discourse altogether. If something isn’t true 100%, it is 0% true—makes sense, right? With that discarding I lose the chance to identify specific situations in my life where P’s statement does apply, which would allow me to grow. On the planet of the practical, it’s time wasted.
To atrophy our ability for nuance, for shades of gray, for seeing ‘case by case’, only feeds confrontations and increases distances, it steers us away from meeting points, it polarizes, it creates exaggerated and false opposites. It stifles the possibility of understanding each other—and of knowing oneself.
Our tendency to argue and refute
The image we have of our own era is that of an increasingly tense and divided world. For some this represents a relapse into darkness, while others see a triumph of solid values.
The Catalan conflict, Trump, the climate emergency, Hong Kong, Brexit, Latin America, gender politics… Any of these issues ignites strong feelings and leads to conversations made up of barbed wire. A Spanish newspaper titled 2019 ‘The Year of Wrath’. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want 2020 as part two.
What if discussions were not about arguing, refuting and convincing?
What would remain, you may ask? (A question quite illustrative in itself…) Imagine a TV debate in which a panelist did not try to bark at her opponents, nor discredit them, nor even defend her own positions fiercely. It would probably not work ‘as a show’, but it would be revolutionary. (I suspect that part of the attraction of so much disagreement is that it provides us with an easy entertainment. Even when we know it’s bullshit it distracts us.)
If we take away our tendency to oppose and persuade, what is left to discussions is to listen more and to try to understand —without the pretense that we can always reach agreement. Our interactions can be as revolutionary as the TV anti-debate above.
A Chinese friend, in the middle of a brunch, begins to defend detention camps; my brother questions my desire to reduce my ecological footprint; an acquaintance in Bristol assures me that Brexit will not be such a big deal: ‘we have always managed’.
Phrases like this are like a rubber hammer blow to my knee, reflexively kicking into disbelief, anger, indignation, condescension… easily followed by contempt and moral superiority. This is not only in my head: I feel it all like spasms in my stomach.
A different approach
Next time you are in a situation like this one, instead of the usual condemnatory response, get interested in what lies beneath those opinions that unnerve you. Try asking that person why they think what they think, what readings or reflections have influenced them, how they feel about the conflict in question, what they fear, what they look for.
Putting on each other’s glasses is like being Socrates for a few moments. When my questions arise from genuine curiosity and not from confrontation or a desire to refute, I encounter open doors instead of defensive ones. The dialogue proceeds not by a mutual friction looking for winners. Rather, the journey is done by both people together.
Most opinions respond to basic emotions; to the visceral, microscopic rejection or attraction we feel towards facts or ideas. Many of our positions are reactive, poorly thought out, and are often rationalizations. This may sound condescending, but I don’t think it is, and here’s why.
To access the feelings underneath a contrarian opinion not only allows me to touch the human and universal in it—and therefore empathize. It not only locates the other person in a world of fears, pain and hopes that we all share. Not only does it smash the stereotypes with which I pretend I know the world. In addition to all that, it reveals why I think what I think, that is, that my opinions also have an emotional basis and are conditional.
Devon Price writes in Medium that ‘if a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context’. More than once I’ve heard my upper-middle class relatives go on about the homeless—a reality that is completely alien to them—with as much astonishment as contempt. (If you’re curious about that context, it’s brilliantly recounted in this article by Linda Tirado.)
An experiment in fostering dialogue, not debate
In the same way, I cannot have perspective on my positions if I am blind to my own context. Instead of a one-to-one combat in which I am right and I think what I think just because it is true, whereas the other person is wrong and is a [fill in with insult], this exercise places us on an equal plane: we both think what we think for exactly the same human motives and emotions.
If what I’m proposing is of no use, if it does not approach positions or help you understand anyone, you will not have wasted your time either. It’s not like the usual ‘butting of horns’ of opinions is very fruitful anyway. Quite the contrary: when someone attacks your opinion, your instinctive reaction is to cling to it more tightly. At least this system facilitates an opening up.
I’m also not describing a mere strategy to avoid the awkward disagreement. I’m not suggesting we imitate that old joke of two friends who meet and one says to the other: ‘What do you do to stay so young?’ ‘I never argue with anyone.’ ‘Come on, that can’t be the reason.’ ‘Well, then it must be something else.’ Or my grandmother, who uttered her famous “Cadascú pensa com pensa!” (Everyone thinks in their own way!) and never wasted a second arguing with you.
What if discussions were not about arguing, refuting and convincing?
In the couple of months since my experiment started—and I admit there have been failures—I have seen to what extent I impose my circumstances on situations that deserve to be seen on their own terms. I consider that knowing the point of view of the other is a good in itself. I have discovered that there are many possible victorious endings in a disagreement. And I have begun to think that, while perceived almost as an obligation, countering positions and arguments is an imaginary necessity. It may have its evolutionary roots, and many situations require it. But something in that strategy smells kind of obsolete. Our environment is far too different from that in which we evolved. And just as our instinct to accumulate sugar and fat can kill us in a world of abundance and refrigerators, today we suffer from ideological obesity.
I don’t propose intellectual anorexia, but an intelligent diet. I absolutely do not advocate for the suspension of critical spirit and well-conducted debates. In fact, I doubt the connection between these two and the confrontation of ideas so prominent today. We imagine a correlation, but if that were right, we would be swimming in a sea of exemplary debates and critical thinking. From a certain point onwards they rather seem inversely proportional: the verbal fight has risen decibels and common understanding is endangered.
I propose an intelligent diet consisting of dialogue. This is a practice. (In terms of the eightfold path of Buddhism, it would correspond to Vision and Speech, or mindful communication.) Try it. I’m not saying this is the correct and definitive way to live, nor that it is flawless—but neither are 2019 confrontations. However, in my experience, it is proving to be very transformative.
This blog first appeared in Bernat Font’s website: https://budismosecular.org/2020/01/13/como-dejar-de-confrontarnos-en-2020/