Simplifying, Polarising, Demonising: Killing Off Enriching Conversation

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.

Discussions don't need to look like this...
Discussions don’t need to look like this…

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.

http://warriorpoetblog.com/2010/10/08/agree-to-disagree-the-key-to-constant-conflict-part-2/
It’s “Us and Them”- or rather, “Us and Bull”

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.

It's amazing how often our opponents are actually dark lords attempting to dominate all life in Middle Earth...
It’s incredible how often our opponents are really dark lords attempting to dominate all life…

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.

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THE BOOK OF TIME

One of the perennial questions I ask myself (and, if you trawl my archives, blog about) is how to spend my discretionary time wisely, and not waste it.

To that end, I have created THE BOOK OF TIME.

 Despite the glorious title, it’s simply a folder with a piece of lined paper for each type of activity I like doing during my discretionary time. Each paper has a column for date, activity and time spent on that activity.

THE BOOK OF TIME

It’s handwritten because I find it easy to forget and ignore files squirreled away somewhere on my computer. Instead, this will sit on my desk or in my bookshelf, where I see it every day. I chose a dark and ominous folder to give it some gravitas- which is why I call it THE BOOK OF TIME. Over-glorifying it is partly a trick to ensure I commit to it, and partly because it’s a fun title. Who doesn’t want something as majestic and doom-laden as THE BOOK OF TIME sitting next to them on their desk?

The idea is that every time I play a computer game, or read a book, or do some other discretionary project, I record the date, what I did, and how long I did it for, on the relevant paper. I also have a “General Log” page where I enter all activities organised by date.

I am hoping for three advantages.

Firstly, seeing a long list of all the time I’ve spent toiling away on various projects will help me appreciate the progress I am making- especially for those less tangible activities like fitness or shorthand practice where progress can be a little harder to measure than say, “reading one book a month.”

They say you can get really good at something if you spend hundreds of hours on it- well I won’t know that I’ve spent hundreds of hours if I don’t record those times.

It’s also useful for computer games. I find that my discretionary time is more pleasurable if it is memorable; but computer games can easily be forgotten in a sea of gaming. Recording my activities helps me remember where I have been and the fun and the productivity I have had in the past.

Secondly it will help me work on a variety of activities, rather than gorging on computer games all the time. I can flip through the book and realise that I haven’t spent any time on my blog lately, while my “computer game” entries are growing rapidly. That’s one of the motivations that drove me to write this post!

Thirdly, it gives me some personal accountability each day. This is why I created a “General Log” for all activities organised by date. Yes, it does mean writing two entries for each activity, but it allows me to see every discretionary project I’ve done today in the one place. Thus I can review the day and see if I was productive and wise with my free time or not. If I am, then that’s the encouragement I need to keep it up and build some momentum. If not, then it gives me the chastisement I need to tighten up my act.

Things THE BOOK OF TIME is not:

It’s not a diary. It doesn’t do forward planning. It’s a history book. 

It does not record everything I do- only particular projects I want to do in my discretionary time. Still, ‘tis a pretty broad list- I added in “social stuff” because I want to spend some discretionary time that way, and I added “computer games” because I’m not trying to delete them from my discretionary time, and incorporating it allows me to monitor my time use. I haven’t added university studies because it’s a record of the time I can spend at my discretion, not the time I spend on my external commitments.

It’s not a complete solution. I still need a diary, and the book will only work if I actually use it. Nor does it magically force me to be productive. I could have a BOOK OF TIME and only ever enter computer games. It’s merely a tool I can use to monitor and record my free time usage so I can improve it if I so choose. The choice rests with me.

Hospitality

Hospitality is a great virtue.

I imagine we could all list times we have been blessed by other people’s hospitality as they invited us to dinner, or to their house for the afternoon, or maybe even housing you overnight between flights in another city.

And the Bible commands us to be hospitable (1 Peter 4:9: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”)

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

First off, I don’t even have a house to invite people over too. I live with my parents. So how can I be hospitable if I don’t have a home to invite people to? Now, when I was housesitting, I had a house. But I still didn’t invite anyone because I feared my cooking was not up to standard, and because I didn’t think I could play the role of host like I’ve seen my Mum and Dad do.

Now, there are several answers to those problems, such as “Get over it!” and

Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware
Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware

“Learn how to cook!” and communicating with your folks so they can help you invite people to your house, because it is your house too. But as good as those answers are, ultimately these problems stem from the wrong understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not “having visitors over”. That’s just a way of expressing it.

Hospitality is using your resources to intentionally create a space where other people can feel loved. It’s easy to see how inviting people for dinner can do that. But we can do that when we are out of the home as well.

For instance, listening is an incredibly hospitable act. When we listen to other people, then they feel loved. More specifically, they feel safe, because who they are or what they are saying is being shown respect. Your “listening ear”, to borrow the metaphor, creates a space where it is ok for them to show you a little bit of themselves. 

Conversely, if we are poor listeners, then we are inhospitable. If we do not pay them much attention, then they left feeling that their ideas or experiences aren’t valued, so it’s not safe for them to share them. But if they do not share, then they are isolated from other people, and without that connection, how can they feel loved?

Listening is hospitable.

In exactly the same way, kindness is hospitable. If the words we say or the acts we do show them that who they are or what they are saying or dong is valued, then we’re saying that it safe to be and do those things here. With that safety, they can dare to express a little bit of themselves. And with that freedom, we feel loved.

So I want to be a hospitable person. Yes, I probably should learn to cook (my mum is reading this after all!), but more than that, I want to be a walking dinner invitation, so that how I talk, listen and carry myself wherever I go says: “pull up a chair, make yourself at home. You’re safe here.” That’s very hard work. Some people are better at it than others. The key, then, for the rest of us, is to watch the good listeners and figure out how to use our unique skills to follow suit.