Friday, December 27, 2013

How to Have an Argument, err Discussion Online

I spend a lot of time reading articles on the internet, far too much time. But maybe I'm being fairly productive during those times when I'm reading really smart, really good writing from those grappling with some of the most difficult issues of the day. The best writers tend to be located on sites that host views across the political spectrum and part of the reason these writers are so great, in my view, is because they have been challenged. They are read by people who disagree with them, they read others with whom they disagree, and they write and are driven to write from a place of tension and conflict.

These writers want to contribute to the great conversation that has been taken place since the beginning of the written word. There are many great forums for this kind of great writing, the two I frequent most frequently are The Atlantic and Slate, but there are others. Admittedly, these sites are not perfect, they both lean left, but given the nature of our political environment and the fact that people are seeking echo chamber validation for views they already hold, these sites are about as good as they get.

Contrast that with those sites that try to stay more politically pure:  Town HallThe National Review, or The Weekly Standard on the right or DailyKOS or Think Progress on the left. I notice this especially on the right wing sites, where the echo chamber is particularly loud. I understand this is a subjective opinion, but on average, these sites tend to emphasize stories and make political points that have very little relationship to the topics and points made on the other side, almost as if they are living in another universe.

One thing I am convinced of, however, the more broadly read a writer is, the more they have injected themselves into the middle of a conversation, the more frequently have they grappled with the big questions and dealt with challenges to their opinions, the smarter they are as writers. Similar to why Gandalf becomes the white wizard in LOTR only after his fight with Balrog, we become better when we struggle. It's why I think conservative thought has degraded over the years and why I struggle with the content on their websites, they have insulated themselves to a far greater extent than the liberal sites.

So, why should I care about any of this? I don't make my living writing on the internet. But I do love to learn. I love to grapple. I love to argue discuss big ideas with people who disagree with me. There are many out there who do, but there are also many who are turned off by the debate. Why? Because we too often do it wrong.

The problem with most internet debate, taking place in the comments section of a posted article, on facebook, twitter or between bloggers, is that in the heat of the moment, our point of view gets skewed. We come into it believing we have the answers and it's our own holy calling to convince the other that we're right. Our goal is to get the other person to change their poorly conceived, weak opinions to our own much more superior ideas conceived by a much more advanced mind. Can you see why this is a flawed approach?

Why We Disagree
But why do people disagree in the first place? I think there are many reasons, but here's a short collection of them

Different Backgrounds
We have different backgrounds and experiences which lead us to see the world in a different way informed by these differences. This is key. It doesn't mean we're wrong, but it does mean we're limited - all of us. Chances are on many issues, we're both right and we're both wrong. In other words, yes, what we're saying makes perfect sense, but only if you see the issue from my exact vantage point.

For this reason, it's vital that we seek empathy in our discussion, placing ourselves into the other's shoes, really trying to understand the issue from their perspective. Give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Different Foundational Opinions
We come to our opinions usually from a basic set of foundational principles. Whether or not you believe the courts over-stepped their bounds on the gay marriage ruling in Utah recently probably depends a lot on what you think the proper function of the judicial system is. And it probably depends even more on what your opinion on gay marriage is. It's frustrating to have a debate on an issue, when you disagree on the more fundamental issues driving these opinions.

The quicker you discover this and drive down to the more fundamental disagreements, the faster toward understanding you will get.

There are Really No Right or Wrong Answers
There are some issues where both ideas are viable approaches to solve the problem under discussion. Additionally, there are attributes about the world we live in that just lend themselves to unsolvable problems. There are all kinds of ideas out there on how to end poverty, none of them are likely to work or all of them may. We don't know, actually. For these ideas, it's best we just try them and see.

Why We Should Engage
The point here though is that the conversation is important. Admittedly, we should avoid hateful contention on any platform, but I think we can and should engage with others who have different opinions, perspectives, religious and political ideas than we do. In fact, living in the country we live in, with the political system we have inherited, our politics demand that we do.

How many of us complain about the utter incompetency of the US Congress, their failure to pass meaningful (or any) legislation, their unwillingness to cooperate or compromise? Our representatives behave in the way we do because they represent us who are behaving in the exact same way. If we want our representatives to compromise, we need to encourage them to do so. We have to be willing to support legislation that we will likely hate. Few of us are willing to give our representatives this kind of support.

The reason why this is important, though, is that likely we're wrong. Likely those people who disagree with us have good reason to do so. Willingness to compromise is a willingness to admit they we don't have all of the answers. That our ideas, left on their own devices, would probably hurt more people than help. Working together produces better legislation, better ideas come but only if we feel validated and listened to and only if we listen and validate.

Musicians are experts at this. They have learned to both listen and contribute at the same time.. To quote Daniel Barenboim from his  book, Music Quickens Time,
The way that people should play in an orchestra, when you sit in the orchestra, you have to give everything of yourself, everything you know, everything you feel, whatever comes to you, you have to give the maximum, otherwise you're not contributing to the collective effort, but at the same time, simultaneously, you have to listen to what others are playing, and what you say is in permanent relation to what they are saying. What you play in relation to what they are playing. If you are too loud, they won't be heard, if you are too soft, you won't support them. What better lesson for life do you want? Can you imagine if our politicians have to really contribute everything that they think and feel and at the same time listen to others."
That's what happens in a productive conversation We are forming music, with all of the tension and surprises good music contains, where all involved are both hearing and being heard. This is the environment where good ideas germinate.

A Better Way to Discuss
The problem here is that most people engage in an on-line debate all wrong. Our goal is not to learn but to convince. The problem as I mentioned, is that we're already on shaky ground because we are more likely wrong than right (or if not wrong, most likely too narrow, or too limited to be useful) because we as limited human beings who just don't know very much.

Rather, if we could change our paradigm. The goal should not be to convince but to discover. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Recognize that they likely have really good reasons to believe the way they do. Expedite the discussion by attempting to make their argument for them as soon as you understand what their argument is.

Why this is Important
An idea came to me in the context of the gay marriage debate. First, consider that this debate seems to be winding toward an abrupt resolution with the help of a series of court decisions. I do realize, even without judicial help, that the democratic momentum seems to be moving in the pro-gay marriage direction. But to get a full, nation-wide democratic victory would take time. Given the constitutional barriers to major legislative national movement and the weakness of our current Congress, a full national democratic decision on the gay marriage is likely at least a decade away.

Rather than wait, it looks like the issue is being resolved by judicial fiat. What was once a broad conversation including, most especially, churches and church members and individuals from all parts of society, we are leaving this issue to be resolved by the elite few who happen to be sitting in the judge's seat. This will prematurely end the conversation and that is disappointing.

Since most people like to use 1960's civil rights analogy to further the case on gay marriage, let me do the same. There was a strong Democratic movement to end the unjust Jim Crow laws culminating in a series of important legislative victories. But this was also pushed forward with important court case decisions. Given the nature of this issue and the extreme injustices being inflicted on black America, over-turning these laws was extremely important. Providing legal protection to allow blacks to go to school, purchase homes, and obtain jobs where-ever they like was (and is) vital.

But one side-effect of the way this issue was resolved is that it lead to two decades of political correctness and a witch hunt to banish all racism from the public sphere. A part of me wonders whether we really were better off censuring even those who made dumb comments on race. There were (and are) a lot of people who sincerely hold incredibly naive, incorrect and damaging views on race. To completely come to terms with and move away from these views, you need a safe place to express them, to have them sincerely challenged. Because we would rather shut them down rather than engage and convince, I wonder if the collateral damage was much worse resulting in harder-to-detect racist laws causing considerable harm to black communities.

It's not politically correct and certainly not accurate to believe that blacks commit more drug crime than whites, but the fact is that people broadly still believe this to be so. We have had centuries of slavery and racism in this country, to believe that we as a country can collectively pivot on a dime to the more correct position just does not seem realistic. Perhaps if we would have cut cultural racists a little bit of slack. Allow them a bit of time to work through their accidental racism, perhaps we could have avoided the third iteration of Jim Crow laws shepherding far too many of our black young men through our prison system. Perhaps if we were little more forgiving on speech and a lot less forgiving on racist legislation that have decimated poor, black neighborhoods, we would be better off as a country.

That is why we need the dialogue. The conversations are often messy and discouraging. But we should be really careful to limit speech in all of its forms. Rather we should do the opposite. Fewer echo chambers and more forums where opinions are discussed in a forum of natural disagreement. Where the objective is not to convince but to learn and improve.

To be clear I'm not excusing hateful, abusive speech. There is no excuse for name-calling or hate in any form and those who resort to it should be censured, but we really need to be careful what we categorize as hate speech. The motivation of the speaker is important.

And when we error, we should error on the side of open engagement and avoid limiting political correctness and any other kind of censure in all of its forms.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Santa Claus Does Exist

Last night on Christmas eve, I was reading this interesting story about why it came to be that Norac tracks Santa.  This prompted me to immediately download the app on my phone to track Santa's progress with my kids. I found myself trying to explain how Santa could be making such rapid progress throughout the world, visiting every house in the span of a solitary night - how he violated all kinds of laws of physics (ok I left that part out, but I was thinking it). That he shows up more as a flash and gifts magically appear in neighborhoods within the same fraction of a second.

Then I thought, wow, how implausible of a story is Santa Claus, but millions of children believe. Sure, it's in their best interest, and what do they know about the implausibility of Santa Claus when the proof is in the gifts that show up out of thin air on Christmas morning.

Incidentally, we are very careless keepers of the Santa secret. My boy commented this morning on the fact that he saw my wife purchased the gift marked "from Santa" for his sister. But it doesn't seem to phase him or his sister, he still believes - though I'm not sure how faithfully he would hold onto this belief if cornered by a skeptic.

But as I thought about this crazy myth that gets perpetuated in household after household, a different thought came to me. It's a thought that comes to me in different contexts, say this one about why so many people care about Lindsey Lohan. This is really, truly a magical night. Every family of different economic incomes, different backgrounds, different circumstances align for one event, year after year because this holiday matters for so many people on so many levels, merging the celebration of Christ's birth with a myth spun from the actual life of a Catholic bishop long ago.

And the traditions and the gift giving matters economically, providing a very real boost to the economy. It's really, truly is a magical time of the year.

And the reason is because Santa Claus does exist, he is not a myth. He is real. He exists because Santa is every parent who loves their family enough to make him real by providing this magical experience over and over again for those they love. One person cannot literally provide hope, and magic for millions of children all over the world. One person never does. One person can't, but every single one of us, working together, collectively can.  And this is always the case. It's why conservatives were skeptical about the way Obama won the presidency but it's also why so many liberals had hope in it.

Because real change is made by each of us doing good for those near us, one thoughtful act of sacrifice at a time. If you want to make a real difference in ways that matter, the answer is not to build the next Facebook. While cool and useful, it's not nearly as transformative as the founders of the company think. What really changes the world is for the world to change, by all of us changing together.