You Might Have a Point

A blog and a podcast in search of mutual understanding and productive conversation about politics and related topics. New podcast episode every Sunday. New blog post every so often.

You Might Have a Point

Note: this was originally published on my Ghost blog, but I've decided to move my blog over to Fireside.

I am starting this blog, which will cover various topics related to politics [1], because of my commitment to writing what I believe is the truth. I realize that this might seem like a strange thing to say in 2020 — both because of the word “blog” and because of the word “truth.” I can almost hear a cynic saying: Are those things even relevant any more?

Dan Carlin made a similar point in his podcast episode about the upcoming election by sharing a quote from the classic book, 1984. The main character, Wilson, is trying to convince his love interest, Julia, to share his concern about the fact that the Party is openly and brazenly lying about the state of world affairs. But she is not convinced: “‘Who cares?' she said impatiently, 'it's always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.’”

As Carlin noted, even though it has now been 71 years since its original publication date, that phrase — “the news is all lies anyway” — sounds depressingly familiar to our modern ears.
I am mostly joking, though, about it being strange to start a blog in 2020 that claims to be committed to the truth. It would be far too cynical of me to think that an in-depth discussion of ideas was completely outdated. And to think that the truth itself has outlived its usefulness — well, that would be a very cynical thing to believe indeed.

Still, it is a fact that blogs, which can be a truly excellent format for discussing complex ideas with others, have lost a lot of their popularity. (Podcasts have made up for that in some ways, but not in others. Newsletters have also been a different kind of replacement.) And even though it’s practically impossible to make a complete and objective measure of a commitment to truth-telling in the news, I would be surprised if you could find one today that was not trending downward at the moment.

The bad news doesn’t stop there: The difficulty of finding out what is true today is not confined to the world of politics. As one reddit user shared, companies like Glassdoor, which at the very least used to have some measure of trust, appear to be taking actions behind the scenes that make users question whether that trust is misplaced. There’s also the fact that technology today makes it easier than ever to spread convincing lies very quickly, as this book about Deep Fakes describes in horrifying detail.

Even if you agree that these things are a problem, though, what can be done? First, I think it’s important to recognize a couple things. One is that a general commitment to the truth in America today is still very far from being lost altogether even though it might seem like it every now and then. Even more importantly, though, we need to understand that the truth has never been all that popular in the first place. After all, the truth has always been hard to swallow. Lies, on the other hand, usually go down a little easier, especially if they are mixed in with just enough truth to convince you that they’re as good as the real thing. [2]

And yet, despite this general tendency of humankind, it still seems like there is something fundamentally different about the world today. Even though American history is replete with examples of slanderous hyperbole and outright lies, this moment feels worse somehow. I think it’s because, even though lies and half-truths have always sold more papers than the complete and unvarnished truth has, our current information economy seems to have amplified this basic fact of human affairs to an alarming degree. The profit margin on lies seems to be at an all-time high, whereas the profit margin on the truth seems to be nearing record lows. Despite all the alarmism in the news today, I believe that this trend is a real cause for concern, and not hyperbole.

But even if I am concerned about this, one might ask, what should I do? What can I do? It is true that an individual can only do so much — personally, I have high hopes for this little blog of mine, but I also have realistic expectations as to what it can accomplish.

Still, I have thought about this question a lot, and I have a suggestion that I think might help. First, though, I want to make an observation. In America today, to say that discussions about controversial topics are heated would be an understatement. Much of this is online, but it’s gained an increased presence in real life, too, sometimes with deadly consequences. Along with this high level of tension and stress can come a psychological tendency to not be willing to concede a single inch to your opponents. Because this tendency often makes the conversation worse, not better, I think it’s necessary that we recognize when this instinct is getting the better of us, so we can work against it.

So this is my suggestion. When discussing contentious issues, I try to ask myself these questions: What assumptions am I making about the values that we hold in common? Are those assumptions accurate? Is there some part of what this person is saying that I do think is true, even if I think most of it isn’t? If I genuinely think that there is some truth to what they are saying, I will try to respond with something like, “you know, you might have a point there.” I think that I should do this even if — perhaps especially if — those who disagree with me are not willing to do it themselves.

Hence the title of this blog: “You Might Have a Point.” While I am committed to espousing certain ideas that seem to me to be fundamentally true, I will try to be just as committed to find the truth in what those who disagree with me are saying. I believe that there is a great deal of wisdom in a commitment to doing both of these things, and I also believe that there is a great deal of foolishness in doing one without the other.

To some readers, this might seem like I am trying too hard to find the truth in what others are saying or that I am refusing to speak plainly about an issue. And they have a point. It can be difficult, and sometimes it might even be naïve, to find the truth in what someone says when you believe that their ideas are horribly wrong and, in some cases, dangerous.

When it is appropriate, a willingness to engage in dispassionate analysis can help with this, but that alone is not sufficient. I believe that doing this can be good, but if you take this too far or do it in the wrong place and time, it can result in being tone deaf on issues about which people are justifiably sensitive. Moreover, it would be foolish to claim that any one of us is committed to pure reason alone, guided only by the facts, whereas others are letting their feelings get in the way. (You can come to some awful conclusions if you are not willing to consult your feelings about an issue. I believe that in practice, all this will mean is that you are relying on your feelings without admitting it to yourself.)

So I find it essential to reflect on my own thoughts about an issue as well as my feelings before expressing my opinion. I also find it important to give due consideration to others’ thoughts and feelings if I am to find out the truth. But there is a third type of question, which I think is the most important one and the most difficult. How do my own thoughts and feelings relate to my values? And how do I know if those values are good ones to have?

These are, of course, weighty questions. My experience when trying to answer them for myself has been that if I defend my own positions without being willing to look for the truth in a wide variety of places, then I will almost certainly end up believing in some untrue things — things that will lead me to act against my own values. I also believe that if I do the latter without the former, then I similarly suffer a very high chance of making the same error.

All of this is why, when I think that you might have a point, I’m willing to say it [3]. I do this because I believe that it will help us find out what the real truth of the matter is.

I am sure that I will not always live up to this ideal, but it is what I am striving for. My intention is not to claim a commitment to the truth merely as a rhetorical device or as an empty gesture; instead, it is to instill in myself a desire for something that is much more than simply another person’s opinion. I refuse to believe that we live in a world where that’s the only thing that matters.

Footnotes:

[1] This blog will generally be about political philosophy, the culture war, and related topics. It’s impossible to not reference details to some extent or another when talking about politics, and I will do that a little more in my upcoming post on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But in general, I will be discussing broad topics and not specific events or issues.

[2] I think I am paraphrasing something C.S. Lewis said about this, but I’m not sure.

[3] I don’t plan on hosting comments on this blog because I don’t have the time to moderate them. There are also plenty of other places to discuss things online nowadays, including Twitter and Facebook. So maybe respond to me there when I post it, or, if you prefer, link to a reddit thread and ask me to comment there. I can’t promise that I will respond, but that approach seems best to me.

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