Monday, February 11, 2008

On Demonization III: Hatred and the Inability to Learn

This post is the third installment in a series whose table of contents may be found here; it assumes you have read its predecessors here and here.

Hatred has two principle effects on the person who indulges in it. First of all, it makes you stupid. And secondly, it turns you into that which you hate.

Let me ask you to do a thought experiment, and I urge you to answer the question I'm going to ask at the end with your first, gut-level reaction. If my Durbin-defending friend the Ghost and I completely disagree with each other about some issue -- say, the comprehensive immigration bill -- and as we go along it becomes obvious that the Ghost is 100% right on every point and I am 100% wrong, so obvious that there's nothing I can do but admit that she is completely right and I am completely wrong...which one of us just won? ...continue reading...

Unless you assumed that this was a trick question and therefore tried to figure out what the trick was -- or unless you've heard this thought experiment before, which pretty much means you've seen it on this or my own blog since I made it up myself -- your answer was something along the lines of, "Oh, man, the Ghost just totally routed you -- she won by a landslide."

But now let me ask you a couple of other questions:

1. In that scenario, which of us has come out looking smarter?

2. In that scenario, which of us has learned something?

3. In that scenario, which of us has just been rescued from stupidity in which he had originally been wallowing?

4. In that scenario, which of us is better off than he was at the beginning of the conversation?

Obviously, the answer to the first one is, "the Ghost," but the answer to all the others is, "Kenny." So before you can answer the question, "Who won?" you have to answer the question, "What was the goal?"

I have, on this and on my own blog and in the Sunday School class I put together on clear thinking, set forth a distinction that I find useful, namely the distinction between debate, argument and discussion. Debate is either about who's smarter or else about who's going to get things done his way. Argument is about which person is morally superior to the other. Discussion is about which ideas come most near the truth. And of those three, only the last is consistently useful in uncovering the ways in which we are uninformed or are deceiving ourselves. If the conversation in my scenario was a debate -- a contest to see which of us could make the other person look stupid -- then the Ghost would win...but how much good would that do her? Basically, she wins, if the only point of having the conversation in the first place was to show off. But if the whole point was to get wiser...well, I got wiser, and she didn't. So I win, not her.

Put it this way: you never get wiser, you never learn anything, without admitting you have been in error. But the only form of conversation in which you can admit error without having to admit that you are a loser, is discussion.

Everybody is frequently wrong about stuff. But let us do another thought experiment. There are ten people, and ten debatable issues, and ten equally intelligent and well-informed persons, each of whom starts off right on five issues and stupid on five issues. One of those people is a humble person who is not interested in argument or debate, and who goes into each conversation with an attitude of, "If I can find out facts or come across arguments that show I've been wrong, that's a great thing." Three go in trying to prove they are smarter than anybody else. Three go in trying to find a way to convince everybody else to do it their way. And three go in trying to prove that the people who disagree with them are evil. And you let them all talk to each other until everybody's convinced that further talking will do no good.

Now, at the end, won't you see nine people who are still right on about half the issues, and wrong on about half the issues -- and one guy who is now right about everything?

You get my point, right? If I am interested in learning the truth, and you are interested in finding a way to avoid having to admit that you are wrong, then on all the points on which I am right, I'll still be right at the end of the day, and you'll still be wrong. But on all the points on which you are right, at the end of the day I'll be right, too. I get to keep all my truth, plus all yours as well; but you're stuck with just yours. Everybody starts out wrong about lots of stuff; but the people who are debating or arguing rather than discussing, are the ones who stay wrong.

Now, the first reason that hate makes you stupid, is simply this, which I want you to say out loud very slowly, two or three times, savoring every word:

Hate turns every discussion into an argument.

You see, if you and I disagree about something, and you hate me, it is all but humanly impossible for you to be eager for me to prove you wrong. And the only state in which you can really learn stuff, is the state in which you are eager to learn -- that is, the state in which you are eager to discover that the person you're talking to, knows stuff that you don't know. When you hate, every discussion instantly stops being about which of our ideas is correct, and becomes about my proving what a son-of-a-bitch you are. And once you're there, most of the time you'd just about rather die than have to admit that I am right and you're wrong. You cling to your opinion as if it were a life preserver in a sea of potential humiliation -- which means, if it happens that on this particular issue you are wrong, that you cling to your stupidity as if it were that life preserver.

In fact, if my hatred sinks its teeth deep enough into me, not only do I cease to be able to learn anything from you, but even conversations I have with other people start turning into excuses for me to prove that you're a son-of-a-bitch. At that point it becomes difficult for you to learn anything from anybody, because you're in argument mode all the time. I am deeply concerned about my friend the Ghost precisely because I have rarely seen anybody in a more advanced state of every-subject-under-the-sun-is- really-just-one-more-opportunity-to-show-
how-contemptible-my-enemy-is, than is the Ghost. Now, imagine that the Ghost were around somebody who couldn't talk about, say, the weather or the National Spelling Bee, without turning the conversation to the question of how evil his ex-wife was. Since she is very far from lacking in natural intelligence as long as the subject isn't Republicans, I think she would rapidly conclude, "Um, this guy's got some mongo personal stuff he needs to deal with and get past," and she'd furthermore figure, "I better take anything this guy says about his ex-wife with whole shakers full of salt." And she'd be right -- but the emotional and intellectual dynamic is no different when the person you hate is a politician, than when the person you hate is a private individual.

There are other ways in which hate makes you stupid; but those are for later posts.

This series of posts continues here.


Post a Comment

<< Home