I love to engage in debate and argumentation. When done in good faith, I don’t mind debating people who might believe in all sorts of things that I think are wrong or silly or dangerously stupid. The good faith bit is important to me and I always try to hold myself to the rhetorical standard that I hold others. Sometimes I fail and yes, Bush and Palin can bring out all sorts of ad hominem attacks from me, and often my logic can be clouded by empathy when faced with real world pain or a sometimes self-righteous passion for justice when faced with so much suffering and violence and injustice in the world.
I tend to be good with words and logic and ideas so even when I don’t have a lot of factual basis for my arguments, I can often mount a pretty damn convincing argument for my point of view. Because of this, I will often argue a point without a strong basis in facts or information.
I’m going to try to know when to shut up.
My new rule for myself (and one I’m sure I’ll break over time, but the value is in the effort and over time effort will become practice will become habit) is this: stop pretending I know things I don’t know.
Seems simple doesn’t it? The hard part is distinguishing between what I believe and what I know. The truth of the matter is I, along with most everyone, don’t know very much. I do know that. Of course I get through the day based on any number of facts, but most of what I use to understand the world is based on inferences and belief. I have no evidence that most people are decent, but I tend to move through the world with that assumption. I, personally, have no evidence that Cheney isn’t right and that torture is a find and dandy thing to help protect this country. I believe he is wrong in this, just as I believe that flu vaccinations are a good thing. In order for me to enter a meaningful conversations about these and so many other topics, I have to first admit that my argument is based on a belief that is based on logic, or research, or my trust in the experience and knowledge of specific other people. I then need to shut up and really listen to the other persons argument.
And by listen, I don’t mean wait for them to stop talking to I can make my next point, I mean, listen to their argument and their facts. I mean, take the time to understand their logic (or lack thereof), to try to separate belief from evidence. Then ask them questions, try to get them to clarify their logic or explain the veracity of their sources.
I am not suggesting that you can’t defend your beliefs or have a meaningful conversation about topics even when you don’t have research or direct experience at your disposal. I am suggesting that we would all be better off if we started by acknowledging the terms and limits of our knowledge and recognizing the difference between evidence, inference, logic, facts, and belief.