In my post, Ideas Have Consequences, Including This One, I argued against a naive form of ideological zealotry that caricatures opposing points of view and treats every political or philosophical disagreement as an all-or-nothing, zero-sum battle of ideas. I took the stance that even though it is important to recognize that ideas have consequences, this idea by itself is not a good one to promote.
That is to say, I don’t think that one should argue about ideas without holding some other ideas in mind. It’s easy to be an ideological hack should one wish to be; it’s a lot harder to thoughtfully persuade others in a way that doesn’t treat every disagreement as though it will decide the fate of civilization itself.
So in the process of thinking about what I want my blog and podcast to be, I’ve come up with some of the practices that I think are helpful for the kind of ideological persuasion that I want to engage in. Here are some of the following practices that I find valuable while arguing about ideas:
- Seek to understand before you seek to be understood
- Speak, write, and think with care and precision
- Recognize the scope of a bad idea
- Treat your character, as well as your ideas, as a work in progress
- Be in it for the long haul
As is my wont, I will argue for each of these in turn.
1) Seek to understand before you seek to be understood
Which ideas are really worth fighting over? How can we find what is true in what another person is saying while denying what is false? I believe that doing this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a great deal of wisdom, which to a large extent can only come from experience.
One of the main intentions of my podcast is to create a greater understanding of a large variety of worldviews. This means that sometimes my guests say things with which I strongly disagree. When this happens, I occasionally challenge them a bit, but I don’t always. I think that one of the great errors of our time is thinking we know what “the other side” believes when actually, we do not. My intention is to create a platform where many worldviews are welcome as opposed to turning everything into a back-and-forth debate where I try to pounce on all the bad ideas that I come across. In doing this, I am trying to follow Stephen Covey’s first habit: “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” When I have really formulated my thoughts on a particular issue, I will write about it. By contrast, the point of my podcast is mostly to learn about how others see the world.
2) Speak, write, and think with care and precision
Separating good ideas from bad ones requires care and precision, and understanding what someone means when they say a particular phrase is not so simple. For example, depending on where one stands ideologically, one might take “critical race theory” to be either horribly misguided or a useful and necessary way to view the world. Here is one article by David French, someone whose views I largely share, that tackles this complex issue. I think French’s approach is the right one: understand an idea thoroughly before you attempt to criticize it, give a definition of it when you do, and point out the merits you find in the idea even as you disagree with it in large part.
Doing this is particularly difficult in the age of the Internet. Nutpicking, the “fallacious tactic of picking out and showcasing the nuttiest member(s) of a group as the best representative(s) of that group,” is easier than ever, and there are plenty of ideological outlets whose main purpose is to point out the awful things that the other side has said and done. By contrast, it’s a lot harder to find the strongest advocates for an idea that you oppose -- although thankfully, the Internet has of course made research in general much easier, so those who want to steelman the arguments that they disagree with can still do so.
3) Recognize the scope of a bad idea
It’s also important to recognize the scope of a general problem without prejudice for a particular party or ideology. An idea doesn’t necessarily have to have gained prominence in only one faction to be an issue. Instead, I think that the most dangerous ideas might be the ones that many in both parties seem to be endorsing uncritically.
For example, I take issue with postmodernism, which “can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices” that employ a variety of concepts such as hyperreality in order to “destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” Critics of the left have often criticized its adoption of postmodern approaches to politics, and for good reason. The clearest example on the left is its willingness to redefine terms whenever it sees fit, such as the redefinition of the term “sexual preference” to be a pejorative after Amy Coney Barret used the term, even though Democrats had used the same term in the same way the same year.
Yet I don’t think it’s necessarily accurate today to say that left-wing voices are more postmodern than right-wing voices; as I see it, both sides are quickly becoming more and more divergent from reality in their own ways.
The best example on the right is probably Donald Trump himself. His interpretation of reality seems to me to be much more flexible than any other president’s. I wish that conservative commentators and Republican politicians would have been more willing to call him out on this, especially when there is good reason to believe that that’s what they think about him anyway.
4) Treat your character, as well as your ideas, as a work in progress
The quality of your ideas matters, but I don’t believe it is possible to fully separate them from your character.
Beliefs can, to some extent, be readily adopted and discarded at will, but character is developed. It takes time. It takes sacrifice. It is only changed for the better with constant effort and devotion. I therefore think that someone’s character is often a more accurate reflection of their genuine beliefs than whatever it is that they say they believe. I think it follows, then, that when developing one’s ideas, one should not neglect to pay attention to one’s character.
In reading this article about Kierkegaard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a fun place to frequent!), I learned of “the Greek notion of judging philosophers by their lives rather than simply by their intellectual artefacts.” I think that modern philosophy has probably gotten too far away from this notion. Certainly all of us are hypocrites to some extent: No one is perfectly consistent about living up to their own ideals. Yet some are more hypocritical than others, and it’s only reasonable to take this into account when evaluating someone’s ideas. Just as I plan to work so that the quality of my ideas is going to improve over time, I intend to apply the same effort to my own character, too. If I want people to take my ideas seriously, this is not a nice bonus; it is a prerequisite.
5) Be in it for the long haul
Convincing someone they’re wrong takes a lot of work. For starters, it involves being willing to truly consider whether you are wrong. Even supposing that you are right, though, you have a lot of work ahead of you. People don’t usually change their mind in an instant, especially when it comes to the deep philosophical issues that I believe are at the root of a lot of today’s political divisions. Beyond your immediate argument, they are influenced by all sorts of things: the mores of the surrounding culture, history, recent news events, their perception of your motives, their perception of the motives of those who agree with you, and so forth.
While these things might be technically irrelevant to an issue that is purely philosophical in nature (if indeed such an issue can be said to exist), I think it’s important to recognize the practical importance of these influences on yourself and those with whom you are arguing. Keeping these things in mind, and being patient enough to realize that your arguments will have limited effect is a good thing, both for your ideas and your own sanity.
In sum, there are lots of ideas out there. I believe that it is best to choose what you believe very carefully. No matter what you choose to believe, though, there are going to be plenty of people who disagree with you, and realistically speaking, your arguments will probably have very limited effect. I don’t think that that means that you should stop trying to change people’s minds. I’m not going to -- Lord willing, I am just getting started with this little blog and podcast of mine -- but I think it does mean that you should have some patience and humility when you do. The war of ideas is not really a war, and it’s also never truly won.