Sunday, February 16, 2014

The more things change, the more things stay the same (Ethics of debate)

Only ignorant or obstinate persons would refuse to admit this proof taken from Scripture. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II Chapter V.)
How often have we heard that same thought, that only the ignorant or obstinate would disagree? We hear it in politics, religion, all kinds of public debate. It is an easy trap for us to fall into. Here Maimonides declares himself the winner of an argument, appealing to Scripture (as he understood it) and maintaining that the only possible reasons for continuing in disagreement were serious personal defects in those who disagreed. The view he had just "proved", by the way:
Scripture supports the theory that the spheres [where the sun, moon, stars, and planets move, according to the primitive astronomy of his day] are animate and intellectual, i.e. capable of comprehending things; that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth ... (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II Chapter V.)
It's a little too easy to look back and feel the superiority of our own age when it comes to knowledge, and to think that we could never make a mistake like that. We're not likely to think that the sun (or its 'sphere') is intelligent. That was an innocent mistake of his day where they simply did not know better. But we often make the the other type of mistake that Maimonides makes, the less innocent one: resorting to insults and name-calling, and assuming that in any disagreement there must be something wrong with people who disagree with us.

I've noticed that each person genuinely tends to view himself or herself as infallible for practical purposes. While we acknowledge in theory that we are imperfect, we tend to regard personal mistakes as unusual and extraordinary things that don't apply under typical circumstances. We can't see our own mistakes, otherwise we probably wouldn't be making them. It is far too easy to suppose that we're not making any mistakes. So when we talk to others, it is far too easy to judge them by whether they are like us. Unconsciously, we use ourselves as the standard by which all other people should be measured. (If you don't believe that, I'd invite you to read debates, polemics, or editorials for a few nights.) By "right" people typically mean "agreeing with me"; by "good" people often mean "sharing my values". It follows that someone who disagrees is wrong, and must be ignorant or evil. ("Ignorant or obstinate", in Maimonides' words.) We arrive at arrogance through self-centeredness and self-congratulation, and, from there, we fall into the sin of contempt for other people.

There is also a more widespread version where the same happens on the cultural level. Typically, people can see that problem in other cultures, but not their own. People who think they see it in their own culture are frequently thinking of another sub-culture, one they personally dislike and do not identify with, rather than the one they personally identify with, which -- again, in their minds -- is the vanguard of good and right.

The escape from this trap, I'd suggest, is cultivating love for other people. All of them, indifferent to the group to which they belong. On the one hand we would be much slower, then, to fall into the trap of not giving them a fair hearing, or showing them contempt. On the other hand, we might also have a better sense that the goal of life is not to prove ourselves right. Seek truth all you like, but when we stoop to claiming that "Only ignorant and obstinate persons would refuse to admit" a point? That's not the voice of seeking truth, but the voice of needing to be right. When it becomes more about needing to be right than about the truth, that's when we're most likely to be wrong.


Aron Wall said...

Yes. We are so willing to tackle our neighbor's folly while ignoring our own. "But Jesus, he really did have a speck in his eye!"

Sometimes, when dealing with a specific person, it IS the loving thing to do to accuse them of being ignorant and obstinate. Sometimes, it is a needed truth. Sometimes.

But who are we to judge when this is the case? My guess is that, for argumentative people of the blogger temperment, this should only be done in about 1/40 of the cases that we are tempted to do it. I think we can seldom be trusted to deliver this message in the right spirit, unless we are reluctant to do so because of our love for the other person.

Weekend Fisher said...

I really like that test: "Unless we are reluctant to do so because of our love for the other person".

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Food for thought (and practice). Thanks.