Conversations about ideas are glorious creatures, and everyone has them. Those ideas might be intellectual behemoths about the GFC and Keynesian economic theory or antithesis in Hegel, or they might be ordinary, down-to-earth conversations about what you believe, what is good, what is right, how we should treat people, how we should live. All human beings have those types of conversations.
However, when talking about ideas, it is easy to simplify, polarise and demonise.
Often, we will simplify our, and our opponents’, views into a single, simple thesis, rather than recognise the diversity of ideas we are bringing to the table. An over-simplified idea is easier to understand, communicate and disprove, which is why they’re so tempting. We might claim a leftist has no time for personal liberty, or a creationist has no respect for science or a right-winger understands all social functions through the lens of the marketplace.
Admittedly, many ideas do err by reducing the universe to a few favourite hobby-horses. But if we fail to listen to what is really being thought, then we risk over-simplifying, and misrepresenting, the idea. This process is unhealthy because it strips us of intellectual creativity. It’s hard to think outside the box when we’ve over-simplified everyone’s contributions to conform to the familiar, pre-determined stereotypes.
Over-simplification helps us to polarise the debate. It’s hard to pit two people’s contributions (let alone two whole groups of people’s contributions!) against each other if we recognise their nuance. But if we reduce them to single mantras, then we can create a contest between these ideas. That’s tempting because we know where we stand in a contest. We also know deep down that there is absolute truth. There is right and there is wrong. Humans have a deep emotional desire to be on the right side of that fence. Polarisation assures us that we’re right, and they’re wrong, and assures us that we know where everything stands in this conversation.
This is a false confidence. I strongly believe that there are right ideas and wrong ideas, good proofs and weak arguments. But it’s illogical to assume that rightness always sits with one group of ideas and wrongness on the other. That’s the bitter fruit of over-simplification. It’s very unlikely that either side has a monopoly on truth, but it’s easier to believe if you’ve reduced each “side”, or collection of ideas, to a single entity. Then, if there are only two ideas in the conversation, we think one is right and the other is wrong.
This false confidence encourages demonisation. If people who believe in the existence of right and wrong ideas stop thinking in terms of ideas, and start thinking in terms of sides, then our “right-wrong” reflex inevitably follows suit. Now, whole sides are right or wrong, regardless of the various ideas and nuances that exist inside that idea. Our focus is on sides, rather than ideas, so we become emotionally invested into defending our side’s entire plethora of ideas, rather than treating each idea on its merits. We subconsciously slide from intellectual rigour to partisanship and bias.
Over-simplification handicaps our understanding of the universe. Polarisation creates false loyalties to a group, rather than a commitment to the truth wherever it may be found. And demonisation creates unnecessary, unfounded conflict that distracts us from the honest appraisal of ideas.
These habits are instinctive to all of us. I think we’re trapped in this cycle already. And it can kill honest, vigorous, civil, effective debate about ideas. As anyone who’s participated in a civil, honest discussion can testify, this is a grievous loss.