Why Prolonged Debates Don't Lead Anywhere
Introduction: What triggers this post is my recent exchanges on global warming with Lissome Lady and Amit Goel. Earlier, I had some fairly energetic exchanges with Irreverent Iyer, Turbo Jet and a few others that one could call arguments.
However, I would like this post to NOT be part of any argument. I do not intend this to be another salvo fired in an argument, specifically with LL. Please note that anything that I might say is as much about me as anybody else; therefore, avoid taking offence, and avoid unnecessarily getting entrenched in defensive positions.
This post is in the nature of a reflection. I hope that the readers ' especially those who were in arguments with me ' exhale deeply, loosen all their mental muscles and read it with half-lidded eyes and a mellow brain. And I would urge everybody to please respond to this article as a whole, rather than looking for logical flaws in individual sentences, paragraphs or even ideas.
We all get into arguments, some of us more than others. As bloggers, we get into arguments for various reasons, and I'm thinking aloud here about what the reasons are. I'll look at the dynamics of why arguments commonly happen on the iland, and how agreement can happen. (I repeat, this is about mental and social processes, not about you or me or anybody else!)
Towards the end of this post, I’ll also reflect on my own core beliefs that may be a hidden cause of many avoidable arguments on Global Warming.
The essential nature of blogging is that we state views in writing. The posts that we write are often about something that we strongly feel. One takes a stand on an issue and invites others to read, understand and leave comments.
Firstly, let us ask: What does a blogger expect by way of comments? I think this is an important question for anybody who is writing comments to ask.
Let us return to this question later. For the time being, let us go on to the second part of the blogging story: the commentator. Active bloggers spend a very substantial proportion of their time reading the posts of other people and writing comments. Indeed, many spend more time commenting than writing posts!
So, secondly, let us ask: What drives a commentator to spend time in this way? What is he/she seeking? What internal motivation drives him/her to give so much attention to other people's thoughts?
The answer will tell us important things about what each commentator may write, and what sort of responses he or she may elicit from others.
Answer to first question: I think most people who write posts are looking for the company of like-minded persons. They hope that some readers will CONNECT with their writings and thereby, to their mind.
I don't think that people believe that EVERYBODY will entirely like their writings; a universally-liked piece of writing is like the unicorn. It's a myth.
Some people hope that those who don't like their writings just keep silent; these are the people who moderate their comments and delete/hide unfavourable ones.
Other bloggers are willing to put up with varying degrees of disagreement in order to be able to search for those good connections; they hope that after initial disagreements are ironed out or clarified, the connection will happen, and then the road from there on will be a smooth one.
I wonder if any blogger is actively looking for the company of dissenters who think that the writer's thought processes are faulty. I don't think any blogger is looking for a critic (or a bunch of critics ganging up, for that matter) to convince him/her that his blog needs to be rewritten or deleted.
Why Loud Dissent is Worth Avoiding
Assume for a moment that a given post is badly flawed. (I think ALL of us write occasional posts around a basically bad idea.) In this case, what must a commentator do?
Personally, I see no point in leaving comments that say, directly or in a roundabout way, "This stuff stinks. It is horrible. It is totally wrong." Or "Your reasoning is questionable. You are a biased, subjective, illogical person."
In fact, I think it is wrong to dissent very loudly and the reason it is wrong is: Such loud dissent may prevent a lot of other readers, who actually connect with and relate to with the writer, from voicing their agreement or building further on that same idea. It throws them off course and makes them retreat into a shell if they feel they will step into a controversy. I know a lot of people who have an opinion, but withhold it as they hate to be seen taking sides in an argument.
Loud and prolonged dissent is wrong as it defeats the basic purpose of the blogger, which is to CONNECT with others! If YOU don't connect, please just move away and allow him to connect with others! And if you must debate, then please continue the debate in chatspace or emailspace.
In the course of my browsing Rediffiland, I read a number of posts that don't touch me at all, or even make me crinkle my nose in distaste. Some make me furrow my brow with disapproval or shrug with indifference. My personal way of dealing with this most of the time, is to (a) Pass by quietly without a comment (b) Or alternatively to FIND SOMETHING IN THE ARTICLE THAT I AGREE WITH, and then base a comment on that.
Do I break this rule? Rarely but I do. I express dissent when:
i) the person with whom I am dissenting is someone who I know positively wants my feedback ie. we already have a connection that is based on a large amount of agreement. In the context of our relationship, dissent is expressed with emphasis on where we agree rather than where we disagree. It is voiced as a gentle suggestion to perhaps consider a different standpoint, namely the one that I'm offering.
ii) When I deeply connect with the issue, and have an internal compulsion to be heard on that particular issue.
But if I am acting from an inner compulsion to be a critic, then I am already outside of my territory. I am imposing myself on someone else who has made an effort over some hours to write a post. Therefore, I must be as gentle as possible. I need to make sure that I do not give offence, even inadvertently. If I do, then I must promptly apologize and gracefully retreat if challenged.
It is not about my being RIGHT OR WRONG, it is about my being on the other person's emotional sacred ground! Like being in his/her house! When I am in someone else's house, I believe that I must remove my shoes and touch everything with respect and concern.
We who blog on controversial topics, or issues of great complexity like Global Warming, are aware that there are an infinite number of viewpoints to be considered. It is impossible to write a piece that is incontrovertible unless of course we make it dull as ditchwater. So it makes little sense for a critic to go out of his way to say, "This is bullshit! You have missed out on this point, and overlooked that point." One must assume by default that any writing on the issue can be faulted on a number of counts.
In such an instance, it makes sense to look for IDEAS in the article with which one AGREES. It makes no sense for a commentator to contradict.
It makes no sense unless unless unless one is driven by an internal agenda.
And that brings us to finding answers to the second question: Why do some of us, including myself, spend substantial amounts of time reading and reacting to the thoughts of others?
We are driven by internal motivations. Now what might those motivations be?
Some common motivations:
(i) One is looking to connect with people of ones own kind and ones own worldview.
(ii) One wants confirmation of ones own ideas without necessarily wanting to connect with anybody.
(iii) One wants to expand ones worldview ' read about stuff one knows nothing about.
(iv) One wants to read (or seem to read) other people's posts because they will then feel morally obliged to read her/her posts. In other words, I scratch your back so that you come and scratch mine. This kind of read usually leaves comments like, "Nice post dear."
(v) One wants to confirm ones feeling that one has superior intellectual or linguistic capabilities, or a generally better human being. This makes him/her into a habitual critic who goes looking for intellectual duels.
Intrinsic Flaws in the Reasoning Process
Is it not fair to voice dissent? Is it not the birthright of someone who has taken the trouble to read your offering to freely say what he/she feels after reading it? Why must a critic be constrained by the blogger's FEELINGS? Why bring feelings into it? Why not think of the iland as a
The answer: because debate/arguments are not a means of arriving at The Truth about anything.
To arrive at the truth, one must stop, listen, think, introspect, intuit and be calm. One must let the data simmer over a slow intellectual-emotional fire for hours and days. One must place it on a backburner in the mind and stir only occasionally. The Truth generally does not come upon those who participate in an intellectual wrestling match.
Energetic debates and loud arguments are like roaring furnaces which will not allow this quiet process of truth-finding to happen. As the saying goes: An argument generates a lot of heat and minimal light. Arguments are not about the intrinsic validity of data, it is about the skill and strength of the person wielding data to swing it around like a heavy club, bludgeoning the others into what seems like agreement. Arguments arouse egos on both sides.
Critics and dissenters often sincerely believe that they are in quest of truth, facts, authenticity, correctness. They challenge you by saying, "Am I wrong in what I say? Correct me then. Show me FACTS. Come on, let us debate! I am willing to change my outlook, but you will have to CONVINCE ME!"
My various interactions are enabling me to fully realize the limitations of debate as a means of changing people’s outlook on life. Debate depends on logical processes, and the human reasoning process has one grave limitation, which is:
We all tend to take a stand based on our own personal theory-of-everything. Data that conforms to this theory is taken as a confirmation of this theory. This kind of data tends to stick to this structure, and is understood as being good. Data that does not conform to our personal theories, or challenges this theory, is taken as bad, and it is automatically rejected as being ‘faulty data’.
This is true of everyone including myself.
Arguments go on endlessly without going anywhere because this is the way our brain internally operates. Data that is perfectly good for you may be useless for me becaue my theory-of-everything is at variance from yours.
How One Builds Understanding & Consensus
To understand the hidden assumptions, premises and belief-system underlying anybody's intellectual arguments, you need to understand where he is coming from. One understand where the other is coming from by LISTENING to the WHOLE — not by refuting and rejecting the individual logical parts of which it is made.
One needs to BUILD conversations by searching for points of commonality and convergence, not points of divergence. One needs to build an overall understanding of a person ' whether it is me or anybody else. You basically see if you can CONNECT at the core.
After initially agreeing and making sure that the points of commonality are understood, one seeks reference points to compare, and then gently explores points of divergence of opinion. That is how one builds understanding and agreement. Not through debate and arguments.
My Articles of Faith on Global Warming
There are a lot of assumptions that we have underlying the positions/opinions that all of us hold. There are also a lot of emotional orientations there — visceral beliefs that no amount of discussion or argument can transfer from me to you. You either share a similar set of beliefs or you don’t.
When I write about Global Warming, underlying all my intellectual-sounding thoughts are some deep-seated articles of faith:
i) The ultimate survival of humankind is not very important, compared to the survival of Planet Earth or "Nature" as a whole.
ii) There is a Divinity underlying all of reality, which gives our thoughts and actions in every context a kind of hidden meaning or purpose, and which makes self-preservation a secondary issue.
iii) Doing 'The Right Thing' in the present global context is important not because it will ensure our survival individually or collectively, but simply because it is important for its own sake!
Naturally, this sort of non-intellectual stuff does not figure in any conversation on global warming, because it seems extraneous. But unless you share these articles of faith already, the chances are high that you will be at variance with me permanently. (BTW, Irreverent Iyer and Turbo Jet have noticed this about me, and remarked about it.)
I try to withdraw from a debate when I see that where I'm coming from is not where the other person is coming from on that particular issue ' where the CONNECTION IS MISSING. If the main thing that I’m trying to point out isn’t getting the person's attention, and pieces of data, facts or paragraphs that are not individually important are getting all the attention, then that the debate loses its meaning for me personally.
I tend to give up on such conversations because overall, communication just fails to happen. Some of my fellow-bloggers may find this irritating or rude, because they see the central purpose of the discussion as driving towards a LOGICAL CONCLUSION. They feel irritated when I give up without a conclusion.
But how can I continue when I find that the conclusion that we are driving towards is barely important, one way or another? How can I continue when I sense that the divergence is at a deeper level that will not figure in the discussion?
How can I continue an entirely cerebral discussion of Global Warming, based on data and facts, when at the core of all the intellectual stuff that I say is the feeling that I've voiced in the poem below — Birthday Prayer?
I'm putting all my cards on the table here:
In case you haven't already noticed, I am not a True Intellectual for whom hard data comes above everything else. I am not what you might call a Rationalist.
I am a Romantic Spiritualist, and the issue of Global Warming is about our individual relationship with the Earth. It is about love and concern for our fellow creatures, and not about the continued survival and growth of humankind at all costs. It is about doing the right thing regardless of its cost to ourselves.
To me, Global Warming is a spiritual, moral and emotional issue, not merely an intellectual one. It is a deeply Romantic issue, as it concerns our relationship with Gaia. It concerns a direct relationship that each of us ' individually and personally — shares with the earth. Each person's relationship with the earth is unique and special.
The issue of Climate Change is something that one viscerally 'gets' in a fuzzy-minded sort of way. It's about the Big Picture at an emotional, sentimental, spiritual level. If one 'gets' it, then the courses of action for mitigating Global Warming become easy to discuss.
If you connect with me on this central referral point, this article of faith, then I believe most of our differences will start resolving themselves.