When fair arguments are in short supply


There seems to be a dearth of people who actually think these days.

Wow, provocative statement. Who am I to think I am among the elite? Because of course, I do regard myself as a thinker, and I’m seriously frustrated by what appears to me be a lack of ability by others to sift through rubbish and find the truth.

Because there is a lot of rubbish these days. Fake news might be relatively new, but false arguments and smoke screens have been around for a long time, along with the tendency that people pay attention to what they want to believe, and ignore what they don’t want to believe.

At regular intervals, I dialogue with my friends/contacts on Facebook. And regularly, I despair that anyone is prepared to think. Now don’t confuse what I’m saying – I didn’t say I despair that people agree with me. That’s not the point – but that they don’t think.

Any of you with any experience of Facebook are probably about now shaking your heads and saying “Why would you expect anything other than that on Facebook?” For you would know, as I do, that to attempt rational discussion on Facebook is akin to banging your head hard against a brick wall, repeatedly and at regular intervals. Point taken – I agree, though I’m probably still going to bang my head again every now and then.

But what undid me recently was a dialogue I had with someone who I respect. They are intelligent and knowledgable, and we agree more than we disagree on things. I would describe him as left wing (but not extreme) whereas I regard myself as centre-left. I also personally don’t believe in demonising those I oppose, and will try to apply fairness and logic to their point of view, and even to arguments raised against them. My friend, not so much. I have yet to see him grudgingly agree that an opponent has been unfairly treated. But I can assure you, no matter how bad your opponent is, you can’t believe everything that is said against them.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much detail of our dialogue – just enough to create a frame of reference. Our PM, Malcolm Turnbull, recently announced changes to the Australian citizenship test, and to be frank, it sounds to me like he is trying to emulate Donald Trump a little, in order to appease some hard right wingers here in Australia. I’m pretty sure my friend would agree.

He (my friend) posted a video provided by a prominent activist group in Australia, showing Malcolm struggling, very badly, to try and answer a question about the test. The question had more to do with the administration of the test than its content, but the post linked the (very embarrassing) answer to their view that the PM couldn’t defend the test against the accusations of racism.

Well, full marks for amusement and poking fun, but zero in terms of accuracy. I made a comment to that effect, and all of a sudden it was on for young and old. My friend strongly defended the group and its reliability as a source of information, which surprised me.

I thought it was a conversation worth having, so I went on to state that the activist group who made the post often made posts and videos that were light on truth. They were no doubt very effective in cutting through to their audience, but I could not trust them to be a reliable or reasonable source of information. What surprised me again, was that my friend ending up dodging the issue and restating his conviction that the citizenship test changes were racist, a point that I had had no real problem agreeing with in the first place.

I hope I haven’t lost you in all that description! But it does bother me that groups can post videos that are inflammatory and inaccurate (even if I agree with their point of view!) and that intelligent people can’t see it. They don’t want to look for the truth, or if they do, they are not prepared to critically examine the evidence.

That makes me wonder if I am a bit of a freak. Am I being too clever for my own good? Am I splitting hairs? Should I just go along with the crowd if I agree with their point, but don’t agree with how they get there?

There is another friend I have, who is probably smarter than me, certainly knows a whole lot more, and is excellent at separating a good argument from a poor one. But even he recently threw objectivity out the window about a guest who appeared on a respected intellectual TV panel (“Q and A” for those who are interested). He basically ranted against Q and A for having an ultra right wing individual on the show, when firstly, the guy didn’t say anything provocatively right wing, and secondly, if he had, didn’t he have as much right as a left winger to have his say? Q and A should, and does, have varied views and opinions represented on its panel.

So I‘m a bit flummoxed. It seems to me that the vast majority of people, no matter how smart they are, just gravitate to one point of view and then stay there, taking pot shots at the other side. If that’s true, then we’re all in for an increasingly bumpy ride. Hang on folks – polarised communities and points of view are likely to be the norm, and here for a long time.

Openness, and why it’s not easy

“Sometimes he was such a construction of his own carefully constructed censorships and restraints he didn’t know whether there was any longer a creature named Bern Cameron (Invader, C.J. Cherryh, Daw Books, 1995, p.330)

When I read this sentence I was so struck by its eloquence that I thought it was worth writing about. The book itself, by the way, is a good read but nothing amazing, so I don’t think I need to provide any background to it. The statement stands on its own two feet.

Fact is, we all construct how we present ourselves to the world. It’s necessary, though some might work harder at it than others. Despite the encouragement by some to “let it all hang out” or “tell it like it is”, the reality is we choose carefully what we reveal and what we don’t. And we need to.

I have noticed that blue collar workers tend to be more upfront than white collar workers. Not quite sure why, but it might have something to do with them not having to climb a corporate ladder. They tend to tell it like it is, sometimes to their detriment. I had a plasterer who did the work for our renovation a few years ago, and although he was a pleasant enough fellow, he had no problem poking fun at some of the work I had done myself. Not a good thing to do to a customer, and I haven’t exactly enthused about him to others as a result. And I have heard similar stories from some of my friends, of tradies belittling them.

Now of course it’s not all bad. As a matter of fact I find it mostly refreshing being around such people, and I have the good fortune of having a number of them as friends. Perhaps in white collar circles we are so used to having to work with different persons or groups that we learn to smooth over our personal opinions, in order to make the deal or complete the task or keep the client. It may also be true that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more likely you are to hide your opinions and real self more and more. There are more and more people you have to keep happy and working with you, not against you.

But let’s just think of the cost for a minute. I don’t think white collar workers are the same at home as they are at work, but I do think that ingrained behaviours spill out into other parts of our life. Hence even outside of work, those used to hiding their feelings and opinions on the job may well find that they still do so to some extent at home or with friends.

I’m in a moderately corporate kind of job, and certainly have to keep my clients happy, so I suppose I’m pretty used to masking my feelings and softening my opinions in order to do my job well, keep my clients and build my business. That’s perhaps why, recently, I was quite impacted by a guest speaker at one of our conferences, a guy by the name of Peter Sharp.

Peter’s mission in life is to encourage people to trust enough to connect with one another. He does this by staging a number of provocative events in public, videoing them and then putting them up on YouTube. 

There’s no doubt his antics are popular, as evidenced by how many of his videos have gone viral. His most recent one was staging sit-ins in public places where people were encouraged to simply sit and stare into a complete stranger’s eyes for one minute. The video is quite moving, though the  sceptic in me is a little bugged by it, as it is a highly polished piece of work with that background music that is supposed to make you all touchy feeley. I instinctively react against things that are trying to pull my heart strings, and his videos do feel like a lot of others that I have seen. With one important exception – I get what he’s trying to do, and I like it.

In line with my comments about white collar workers hiding their true selves at work, my favourite video clip from Peter is one where he, dressed in a business suit in a busy business district, wanders into a public fountain and starts to dance to music, ripping off his tie and jacket and just freely dancing though sopping wet. It’s completely staged of course, but that’s okay. Others (most of them actors but not all) jump into the fountain and dance along with him.

What he is doing is stepping outside the confines that we put ourselves in, that most of us get suffocated by. And that’s the way of the world. I don’t think the answer is in throwing those protective measures away, but that doesn’t mean we have to be dictated by them all the time.

There’s a reason why we don’t dance on a train (another of his videos). We’re going somewhere, for a start, and we may tired or preoccupied. There’s a reason why we don’t look everyone in the eye, because we don’t want or need to connect meaningfully with everyone. (And if we did dance in the train every day it would become meaningless after a while anyway).

But to step out from behind our masks and our fear, just often enough to remind ourselves how human everyone is, to allow ourselves to touch others and be touched by them, is surely a wonderful thing. Surely it fills us up, even if we have to go back to some kind of routine and even if we do have to maintain some degree of separateness from others. Just maybe we allow ourselves to feel a little more, to trust a little more, to be a little more vulnerable. Vulnerability can actually be a very beautiful and disarming thing.

Of course, our self censorship doesn’t just apply to our job. Some of us censor ourselves mercilessly because we are terrified that the real self will be repugnant to others – we censor ourselves because we just want to be liked. In the process we make ourselves, sadly, beholden to the opinions of others, and we become again trapped inside a facade.

I was a much more outspoken and demonstrative person in my youth. I was also socially extremely clumsy and shudder now as I remember some of the insensitive and totally inappropriate things I occasionally did. ( I’ve forgiven myself for the things I simply did not know how to do, but I do still cringe a little!)

Maybe that’s why over the years I have become more reserved, because “When in doubt, take the safe option”. But inside I am anything but reserved! The challenge is how to stay in touch with who you are in the midst of managing how you relate and work with others. A healthy self image is obviously a huge boon, but those of us who are still working on that have to do their best to still stay true, at least on the inside, with the real us.

And of course all this vulnerability with others can also give others a chance to stab us in the back (or in the front). So…. we need to know when to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and when not to. But let’s at least allow ourselves to ask that question “Can I reach out, can I open myself up, can I make myself vulnerable, even just for a little while?” No doubt we will learn over time when this is a good idea and when it isn’t, but let’s be prepared to learn. I think our lives and the lives of others will be enriched as well.

And maybe every now and then, just like Peter Sharp danced in the fountain, we will let our hair down, experience freedom, and refresh our own souls.

So why do you speak out?

I read an interesting (though awkwardly written) article recently, called “What are the implications of believing it’s impossible to alter other people’s beliefs?” I can’t remember how I stumbled across it – it may have been from one of your blogs, so if it is, thanks for pointing me in its direction!

Its premise is fascinating. According to the article there are two different groups of people when it comes to speaking about their beliefs. One group believes that others attitudes are unlikely to change, and are prepared to share their views simply as an opportunity to stand up for what they believe. The other group believes that attitudes can change, and have that as their motivation when they speak out. Interestingly, according to the article, those who don’t believe views can be changed are more likely to speak out than than those who do.

I have definitely been part of the latter group, those who speak out to change attitudes. As a result, most of my forays into public comment have been firstly an attempt to understand others points of view, agree where I can, and then present my view as carefully as possible, in the hope that reason might lead to discussion and better understanding. Facebook is the place where I have probably done this more than anywhere else, usually in response to someone’s post (and yes, I know its hardly a forum for reasonable discussion). I don’t think it applies to my blogs – they are more an attempt to share than speak out.

I have to say I have been spectacularly unsuccessful in getting anyone to change their mind. Those that do respond either agree with me already, or reply in narrow minded, judgmental ways, often insulting me rather than showing any interest in what I have said. I get the impression they didn’t even think about what I’d said at all.

This recently occurred when I responded to a Facebook post of a friend of mine. It was to do with Trump’s win (of course, what else are people talking about at the moment?) and there was no shortage of opinions. It’s irrelevant what I actually said, but someone I didn’t know gave me a caustic reply, showing (once again) they hadn’t read my comments properly or digested what I was trying to say.

I thought to myself, “I can let this go through to the keeper, or I can try a different approach”. So, I wrote a response, not caring if the person agreed with me or not. I took my time, worded it carefully, and then posted it.

I was happy with what I said. It was snappy, to the point, and way bolder than anything I remember writing before. It felt good, and I’m glad I did it.

To my surprise, the person replied with a more conciliatory tone, although they still managed to misunderstand me and certainly didn’t change their view. But because they were a bit softer around the edges, I decided to respond again, this time with my old approach, seeking common ground.

It took just about as much time to shape the second response as it did the first one, and an hour after I posted it, I decided to go back and read it again (I don’t know if you ever do this, but I do it all the time!). I found that what I had written was clunky, long winded and verbose. It said what I wanted to say, but not the way I wanted to say it.

The other person never replied again, and that was fine. But I mused for quite a while about the disparity between the two posts. Why was one well constructed and the other one such hard work to read? Of course, it could have been that I just wasn’t in the zone when I wrote the second piece, but I think it was more my attempt to reason with them that made it so drab. It was full of qualifiers and balancing comments to show them I was trying to understand their point of view. It was heavy going.

If that’s the real reason, then I have some thinking to do. With my first reply it felt good to just state my case. I wasn’t unreasonable, nor was I inflammatory. I made sure my comments did not smack of any personal attack. I attacked their argument instead, though it was definitely a sharp and spirited response. I didn’t care whether they agreed, and I didn’t expect them to.

So – what’s your motivation for speaking out? What do you think about all this and what has been your experience? I for one intend to apply this new approach to Facebook at least, and we’ll see where it goes from there.