Communication, debate, and honesty (a semi-coherent, inconclusive ramble)

About two years ago or so, a more aggressive version of me had an epiphany, following which I changed in an important way. I was made aware of something that I hadn’t consciously considered before: I was terrible at talking to people I disagreed with.

Most people I know are uncomfortable when they’re confronted by someone who disagrees with them.  A fear of such situations is, perhaps, what makes reinforcing our opinions in a group of people who agree with us so satisfying and reassuring. In my limited experience, most conversations where the conversing parties were not in agreement involved an awful lot of aggression. Such conversations almost never, in my limited experience, ended in consensus. Occasionally, such conversations ended in swearing, one party being kicked out of the other’s house, a family feud, what seems like a lifetime of hatred, and a happy ending after 30+ years when the grandchildren fall in love à la Romeo and Juliet.

My mum is a very non-confrontational person who always disapproved of the ease with which I landed up arguing with members of my extended family. When I was sixteen and more full of myself than I had any right to be, religion became my favourite topic of conversation. Much to Mum’s chagrin, I developed quite the reputation for being blasphemous. Luckily for her, I didn’t cause too many family feuds. Looking back on it, I didn’t really get anyone to agree with me, either. I wasn’t even able to get anyone to give my arguments a chance.

About two years ago or so, I realized that, having grown up in an environment where everyone was more or less okay with my blasphemousness, where no one really cared enough to listen to me and reconsider their opinions, I’d assumed, subconsciously, that changing people’s opinion by conversing with them was impossible. Yet, for whatever reason, it seemed important to me to yell my opinions at everybody. Perhaps I thought angry Facebook statuses would help brainwash the unsuspecting individual who hadn’t yet formed an opinion on the issue I was yelling about. Perhaps it was because I’d been told so often that discussion and debate were important to “take the conversation forward”; maybe I even thought I believed that. Yet, if I’m being honest, every time I spoke to someone who disagreed with me, I never thought there was even a small chance that they’d reconsider their opinion.

About two years ago, when I realized this, I concluded that arguing is best done peacefully, by tweaking  your arguments  enough to get the party you’re arguing with to listen. The numerous internal battles I’d fought to form opinions on important matters would be futile if I couldn’t engage in debates where all parties were willing to listen, understand and change. I began to believe that consensus was, at the end of the day, the purpose of debate. I concluded that, to achieve consensus, I needed to become more of a pacifist in my style of argumentation. I’d have to try not to take offense when people say (what I perceive to be) regressive things; I’d have to, instead, try and explain to them why I disagreed with them, while being careful not to alienate myself by sounding far too “radical”.

Today, I’m not too sure where I stand with respect to this. On one hand, I’ve been becoming more and more conscious of the fact that some of my opinions are not as well-informed as I’d like them to be. I’ve become more wary of confirmation bias, and I’ve been trying to be a better listener. On the other hand, my fundamental beliefs and ideals haven’t changed too drastically. My worldview has become more nuanced, but it hasn’t changed fundamentally.  A lot of the things I firmly believed and a lot of the values I held two years ago have been reinforced, time and again. I care more deeply about these now, and toning them down for the sake of amicable conversation doesn’t seem quite right.

There always seems to be a trade-off between articulating ideas as precisely, bluntly and unabashedly as possible, and sharing ideas, communicating effectively, and convincing people of your stance. You might accuse me of seeing the world in black and white, but I do honestly think that in most conversations, there comes a point when I, consciously or subconsciously, choose one over the other because I have to. It would be ideal, of course, to be able to do both simultaneously. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic enough to believe that that is possible. I think it’s highly unlikely that there will come a time when people who disagree completely with each other will be detached enough to have open, honest conversations where they try to come to a consensus. The key, perhaps, lies in compromise, in learning when to compromise, and understanding why you’re making the compromise. I do think it will take me several years to get to a point where I’m more or less completely comfortable with talking to someone I disagree with.

When I do get to that point, I’ll make sure I look back and write about my journey to it.

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