EXCHANGING IDEAS VS. DEFENDING STANCES VS. BEING TRIGGERED: LESSONS ON DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AND ON BEING INCORRECT FROM EMERSON AND AURELIUS

By Ciaran O'Regan

RATIONAL CONVERSATION

Due to both having lived in the US during the final 6 months of the recent circus election, and, with the sheer amount of social events surrounding the current Christmas season, the concepts surrounding the ability to have rational conversations with people are at the forefront of my mind. Whether it be at social events, work nights out, or parties with friends: the vast majority of us have been and will be spending time in groups of people frequently over these weeks. 

Q. But what will we most likely discuss when surrounded by these people?

A. Fuck all of any importance probably. 

MEANINGLESS SURFACE INTERACTIONS

Why do we talk about fuck all of any importance when in groups? People avoid important and meaningful topics of discussion because of a fear of offending people of delicate disposition resulting in an impassioned argument, or worse yet, an outburst of batshit irrationality (Side Note: I took the phrase "batshit irrationality" from my fellow Limerick men in The Rubberbandits. I know nothing about the intricacies of batshit or why it is irrational, I just love the phrase. But I digress......).

 

"Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often." - Mae West

 

People will more than likely simply stick to relatively soft topics of conversation such as weather/fashion/movies/material objects they bought or received as presents etc. I like the label of meaningless surface interaction (MSI) to describe this type of conversation due to its obviously inherent lack of importance or depth. Big ideas that are of huge importance to our entire society such as economics or emotional intelligence are rarely if ever discussed. Religion and politics? Don't touch them with a fucking barge pole! 

RELIGION, POLITICS, AND CANDYMAN

Religion and politics are seen under the same light as saying "Candyman" five times into a mirror (FYI: "Candyman" was a 1992 supernatural horror film directed by Bernard Rose in which saying the name five times resulted in a bunch of people getting murked by a steel hook wielding paranormal villain).

Religion and politics are at the forefront of our societal structure. They are literally two of the most important (if not THE most important) things to have played roles in shaping the world we live in today. Why the fuck can't (supposed) adults rationally discuss these topics? When we discuss soft nonsense by entertaining the aforementioned MSI topics, we are doing fuck all else but making sounds with our faces so that we are not standing around in silence. Other than to get a social interaction warmed up, this kind of conversation revolving around a series of predictable MSI's, is more or less a waste of everybody's time and energy. It serves no purpose other than to act as a human equivalent to two dogs sniffing each other upon making acquaintance.

ENTER MR. RALPH WALDO EMERSON AND HIS HOBGOBLIN.....

Q. Why are big topics like religion and politics generally deemed to be unmentionable?

A. Because the vast majority of us are close minded hobgoblins where these topics are concerned. 

 

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." - Emerson

 

What Emerson is getting at in the above quote, is that we should not only not fear being proven wrong, but we should be actively trying to learn new stuff all the time or we may as well concern ourselves with our "shadow on the wall". A "foolish consistency" simply means being too stuck in our ways with our minds closed to new ways of thinking. Being a "hobgoblin" means we are essentially being foolishly consistent in our thought processes at the exclusion of entertaining new ways of viewing a topic. When it comes to supposedly controversial topics like religion and politics: far too many of us fall into the "hobgoblin" category as we are irrationally unwilling to entertain that we may, in fact, be incorrect in some of our thought processes. 

A FEW EXAMPLES OF TOPICS ON WHICH HUMANS EN MASSE HAVE BEEN INCORRECT ABOUT SHIT....

Being incorrect is not a bad thing, it simply means one did not have sufficient information to make a more accurate opinion. That is all. For example:

  • Prior to the work of William Harvey in the 1600's,  it was not generally known that the heart was the pump of our blood. Some people even though that the liver may have been responsible for generating venous blood while the heart was responsible for the origin of arterial blood. This was due to the work of Galen. 
  • Prior to the work of Galileo Galilei, it was widely believed the sun moved around the earth and not vice versa. 
  • People used to think the earth was a fucking flat disk from which shit fell off the edge (which is an idea that curiously still prevails amongst a small subgroup of tinfoil hat donning individuals.)

EXCHANGING IDEAS VS. DEFENDING STANCES VS. BEING TRIGGERED

EXCHANGING IDEAS - The Scientific Method

When we have conversation with other humans with the scientific method as the lens through which we view the incoming information, we are exchanging ideas. As a rational human, all we can do is make decisions and form opinions based off of available ideas or evidence. When we get new evidence, we can entertain it and decide if we should change our opinions or not based off of the accuracy and reliability of the new information. If we do change our opinion, we then just hold it until we come across yet more evidence. This is essentially the scientific method. In science there is no such thing as a "scientific fact" but there are simply ideas that are more likely to be true than not true based on these ideas holding out against rigorous attempts to prove them wrong. (while science is unable to be truely true for want of a better phrase, mathematics can be. This is a topic for another day however.)

This is obviously the more favorable way to interact with each other as it removes irrationality and allows for more intelligent interactions.

DEFENDING STANCES - The Believer Method

When we have a conversation with other humans using a belief system operating outside of the scientific method as our lens for viewing the information and responding, we are defending stances. I call this 'The Believer Method'. Topics like religion and politics are probably the most common to fall into the believer method. These hot topics are so deeply personal to people that they have ZERO FUCKING INTENTION of changing their opinions but will instead defend their beliefs with as much emotion and close-mindedness as are humanly summonable. With this lens, we are guilty of ignoring the scientific method in favor of not trying to disprove our ideas at all. Instead, we are simply defending our currently held stances against all new evidence. 

(Side Note: This clouding of our thoughts by irrational emotion was eluded to by the ancient stoics. They labeled the source of this irrationality to be the "passions".) 

BEING TRIGGERED - The Victim Method

When we have a conversation with other humans in which the fear of being "triggered" is the lens through which we view the incoming information, we are adopting what I call The Victim Method. People using the victim method as their lens have no intention of either entertaining the incoming information as if it were potentially truer than their current opinions (via the scientific method), OR, even defending their beliefs with emotion and irrationality as the driving force (via the believer method). Instead, they simply fuck off to their safe space. 

I understand that our primitive ape brains are still struggling to get past their culturally ingrained bad habits such as racism and sexism. However, fostering a culture of it being ok to be easily offended is not the answer. Real life doesn't give us a fucking trigger warning before it swings a metaphorical "Hadouken Punch" at us in the form of a major illness, family death, or even a simply a setback in our career or personal relationships. As such, our time would be much better spent learning some tools of emotional intelligence and using hardship in life as opportunities to sharpen these tools in preparation for when the big shit actually happens. Did Rosa Parks cry over trigger warnings? Fuck no she didn't. She got sick of the bullshit she saw and took action that changed the world.

The type of rationality involved in holding discussions using the the scientific method as a lens to view and process information, is as good a place to start as any with regards to learning how to better separate emotion from data thereby allowing us to make better decisions. This approach is just a more honest way of looking at the world, or to put it accurately; a more intellectually honest way. 

 

"Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

INTELLECTUAL HONESTY - THE OPPOSITE OF EMERSON'S HOBGOBLIN

To be intellectually honest is basically when we do not choose to ignore new information because it contradicts our current opinions or viewpoints. The scientific method is pretty much the definition of intellectually honest. Whereas, both the Believer and Victim methods are intellectually dishonest and reside in the same neck of the woods as the cognitive operating systems one would reckon to be employed in the brain of Emerson's "hobgoblin".

The ability to entertain a new idea and explore it with diligent rational analysis, without accepting it as necessarily truer than our current opinions, whilst maintaining the ability to change our opinions if the information warrants it: is the hallmark of intellectual honesty. To shun this way of looking at new information is to think one is special in some way as it means we think we know better than others.

ARE SNOWFLAKES REALLY SPECIAL?

Everyone and their dog has heard that snowflakes are cool and are supposedly "special" because they are all different. I personally do not see why this uniqueness is a big deal. Regardless of how unique and admittedly beautiful they are to view through magnification, they are still simply supercooled cloud water droplets nucleated about some lucky dust particle.

Us humans are the same. None of us are special because all we are as an individual, is how our genetics have been expressed through our environmental and social influences (basically everything we were exposed to in our lives). With this way of viewing other humans in mind, the next time we find ourselves in a discussion with someone revolving around a topic we have strong opinions on, remember this: if we had their genetics and their exposures we would fucking be them. Simple. To use a very dramatic example let us run an interesting thought experiment: 

Q. What would happen if I (or you for that matter) had Hitler's genetics and Hitler's exposures?

A. I would have been Hitler (and so would you).

This is not controversial but is simply a fact. This is not a fact in a scientific sense but in a mathematical sense as both sides of the equal sign would be identical; Hitler's actual life on one side, and the details of my thought experiment involving the idea that I had both his genetics and exposures on the other.  

This type of outlook removes any of the aforementioned "passions" from the situation as it simply allows us to look at the person in front of us as collection of parts rather than potentially as an enemy that we need to attack via the Believer Method or flee from to a room in an "educational" institution containing cuddly toys and puppies via the Victim Method. As I talked about in THIS ARTICLE, there are potentially huge benefits to breaking a person down into their various parts and analyzing them mechanistically as opposed to emotionally. Regarding difficult conversations, this mechanistic manner of viewing people may thereby limit the likelihood of our emotional ape brains throwing up a barrier to new and potentially beneficial viewpoints. 

Expanding our Frame of Reference

As humans, we each have a unique frame of reference through which we view the world. By adopting the scientific method as our lens through which we view and process new information, we are allowing for the potential that our frame of reference may be changed in beneficial ways should we encounter better information.  Otherwise, we may as well concern ourselves with our "shadow on the wall". 

 

"If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance." - Marcus Aurelius