This post is part 2 in a three-part series. Click here for Part 1.
How then, do we talk to someone we disagree with? What do I mean when I say that everyone is mostly right? If someone says something racist, we are well within our rights to say ‘that’s racist,’ but we are unlikely to change their mind by doing so. When we disagree, we have to pick our battles, and our tactics. Sometimes just saying ‘that’s racist’ is the right thing to do, if only so that other people around us see that racism is unacceptable. At other times, depending on our relationship with the person and the amount of time we have on our hands, it might be best to ask them why they feel a certain way, what experiences in their lives have led them to that belief. It might be better to break that racist statement down into so many pieces that we find the pieces we actually can agree with and help that individual to see other ways of putting those pieces back together into a different worldview. Louis C.K. suggests confronting racist jokes by simply saying “I don’t get it, can you explain it.” and letting the racist reconsider their own logic during their attempt to explain the joke. All of us carry around models of the world in our minds and bodies which are a confusing mish-mash of lived experiences, things we learned in school, myths, hearsay, correct assumptions based on bad evidence, faulty assumptions based on good evidence, piercing insights and hilarious misunderstandings. Actually changing someone’s mind means diving headlong into this unsettling soup and the only way to really do that is to take everything they say seriously, at least for a moment. If someone said to us “I love processed cheese,” we wouldn’t reply: “No, you don’t, you’re wrong.” But whenever anyone tells us anything about the world, they are telling us something important about the way they feel. Ask them, when did you first have processed cheese? What do you like about it? How do you prepare it? Have you tried this other cheese, it’s also fatty and oily and delicious. You probably won’t convince anyone that they don’t like processed cheese, but with enough patience, encouragement and careful questioning, you might convince them to try Stilton. And three years later, they might realize that its better than Kraft singles.
A key point here is that if everybody is right, then everybody is also wrong. Stilton might be delectable, but gooey Kraft singles can be pretty damn delicious between two toasty slices of Wonderbread. The cheese snob of the previous paragraph could also learn a thing or two about the world. In many of the cases I have discussed, the problem isn’t necessarily that people think they are right about something, but rather that they conclude from their correct beliefs that someone else is wrong instead of trying to develop a broader, more nuanced view that is capable of accommodating the lived experience that underlies both perspectives. You can be right about something without fully understanding it or seeing the whole picture.
Throughout this piece I have highlighted my own ignorance of the day-to-day lives of many of the people involved in these conflicts. Even though I tried to develop a balanced look at a number of social conflicts, I am probably wrong about some of the things I said in this article and I am willing to see and consider evidence about these errors. What I’m asking in return is that everyone reading this article also takes seriously the possibility that they are wrong about things, that the world does not actually work the way they think it does, that the truth of the matter is more complicated than their little glimpse of reality has allowed them to imagine. Doubt is one of the most underrated human virtues. People who doubt their own views rarely claim that supporters of a certain political candidate are stupid or pray for a certain type of person to be wiped off the planet. People who doubt their own views are also more likely to keep learning.
The question of right and wrong can be particularly problematic when experts and amateurs meet face to face. When parents want to tell doctors that they know what’s best for their children’s health. When civilians disagree with police about how policing ought to be done. When high school students want to tell nuclear engineers that they’re doing something wrong. The challenge here is for both parties to keep listening. Amateurs have to be willing to admit they might not understand the nuances and experts have to be willing to admit that they might have overlooked something. Our public discourse needs more genuine outreach from experts. Don’t just bottle up all that wonderful knowledge and communicate amongst yourself in arcane techno-babble. Express your views in plain language. Participate thoughtfully in public debates. Explain what you are doing and why when you encounter members of the public. And don’t forget to really listen to the public as well. I’m not suggesting that when someone regurgitates some obvious and commonplace falsehood we should accept it; I’m suggesting that we should try to delve deeper instead of shouting it down. If someone says something that you couldn’t possibly believe then they must have seen and heard things that you have not or missed out on some important experience you have had. Experts have a responsibility to understand the source of amateurs misconceptions. In doing so, they will likely learn about some aspect of the world that they had not considered. For example, urban planning consultations should be open-ended and ongoing, rather than being focused on the specific details of a project that has already been 90% approved. Instead of developing projects and wheeling them out at public meetings, municipal governments should be knocking on doors and holding meetings with free food and childcare to understand the actual problems that local residents face. Outreach from the medical community has to be ongoing, honest, and attentive to the lived experiences of patients — rather than being targeted at specific misconceptions and bad habits. Yes vaccines are good and important, but how did we get to this point? Why don’t people trust their own doctors? What other aspects of the healthcare system weren’t working to get us to this point — is it hurried face-to-face consultations? Is it because some people don’t know any doctors personally? Instead of reasserting evidence about how great vaccines are, a doctor can ask a patient why they don’t want to vaccinate — if they are suspicious of big pharmaceutical companies, a doctor might be able to reply ‘I am too, but most of what we know about basic vaccines is based on independent studies of public data. I think you’re right to be suspicious of the latest and greatest medication, but these are well-established.’ It might not work, but such a line of discussion at least opens the door to real communication. These are the types of nuanced conversations that we need to be having — not a shouting match about vaccines good vaccines bad.
Being wrong doesn’t feel good. And it can be particularly uncomfortable for experts, so much so that they may be tempted to just reassert the various things they know, rather than taking a serious look at that one troubling aspect of the world that they never really have enough time to consider in depth. Vaccines work. End of story. Yes vaccines work, but is that really the end of the story? Poor people shouldn’t be voting for conservatives. End of story. Perhaps they shouldn’t, but the Left should spend more time thinking about why they do, about what conservatives are offering which the Left is not.
Part 3 will take a look at how we can start to enjoy being wrong.