Let Cooler Heads Prevail

I came across this insight on page 295 of Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society.  I think this may explain the inability for members of our society with opposing viewpoints to have productive discussions.

…intellectual prerequisites for reaching serious policy conclusions are, ironically, undermined by the intelligentsia themselves.  By encouraging or even requiring students to take stands when they have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual training to seriously examine complex issues, teachers promote the expression of unsubstantiated opinions, the venting of uninformed emotions, and the habit of acting on those opinions and emotions while ignoring or dismissing opposing views, without either the intellectual equipment or the personal experience to weigh one view against another in any serious way.

Reading this brought back memories of activities in school where teachers or facilitators encouraged or assigned us to take a hard stand on some issue and defend that against an opponent or write our congressman and such to effect change.

Much of the time, I remember, the winners of such engagements in class were not determined by who presented the best reasoned and supported arguments.  Rather, it were the people that seemed to make the best show, whether or not their arguments made sense.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with such assignments because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to take a hard stand.  Even when expressing such concern, I would be encouraged to go ahead anyway because the point of the assignment was to learn that you can make a difference or learn to argue when you don’t believe in something or some other such nonsense.

Then, this made me think about campaigns like “Get Out the Vote” and encouragements made in our society to express your opinions and make yourself heard.

No wonder there’s so much yelling, fallacious and baseless arguments, name calling, false characterizations  and talking past each other in our society.

Maybe we should instead encourage folks to look for evidence to support their opinions, study, ask questions, listen to people with opposing viewpoints and develop reasoned, empirically supported rationale for their positions.

Maybe we should encourage people to admit that it is okay for them to say they do not know enough about a subject to have a strong opinion and that they need to do more research.  And, it’s also okay for them to present their current thinking on the subject in a courteous manner to see if the party has any thoughts on it.  And, finally, it’s okay to divorse your self-esteem from whether you are right or wrong or whether you are able to convince the other person.


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