A few years ago I met a girl at a party, and we hit it off pretty well. She was an anthropology student, and I had just finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, so we were talking about how history intersects anthropology. Basically it was a night full of nerd foreplay. For a number of reasons that aren’t germane to the story, we ended up not dating, but stayed in contact anyway. One night we were talking and the discussion somehow turned to a debate on moral relativism vs. absolutism with me taking the ‘absolute’ side. The conversation went something like this (shortened for clarity):
Her: But what right do we have to go into another culture and tell them their beliefs are wrong?
Me: We interact and trade with those cultures. We are invested both in their economies and their populations, and so what affects them affects us. We have every right to express objections to things like government-sanctioned rape and female genital mutilation.
Her: But those are by our standards of right and wrong. They don’t necessarily see it as wrong.
Me: Okay, give me a circumstance in which rape could possibly be justifiable. Where any reasonable moral code could permit something like that to happen.
Her: See, this is why things never worked out between us!
I was stunned (mostly because that had nothing to do with the reason she had told me it wouldn’t work out). What I thought was a lively debate about two opposing positions on morality was, in her mind, a bitter personal fight. I had mistaken her spirited defense of her position for a deep level of interest in the topic. However, what she saw was me saying “your beliefs are stupid, and you are stupid by extension.” This couldn’t be further from the truth; at the time I thought she was actually reasonably smart (although that impression changed as I got to know her better). It was then that I realized something that is key to being able to have actual discussion and debate about issues.
We need to stop thinking of our ideas as reflections of ourselves.
Here’s what I mean by that. Cara (the girl) failed to separate criticism of her position from criticism of her as a person. As a result, when I expressed my position that refuted her position, I wasn’t so much saying that moral relativism was wrong, I was saying that she was wrong. But not just wrong about the topic, but a generally wrong person. The more I argued, and the more counter-examples I provided, the more insulted she became. Because I was unaware of this, I just kept going on in my debate (if I was interested in sparing her feelings, I would have taken the cop-out position that we’d just have to “agree to disagree”).
Now there were a whole host of other reasons I’m sure that Cara wasn’t exactly thrilled with me. We were talking online, and tone is very difficult to convey. I also tend to be a bit of an asshole, which is great when picking up girls at the bar, but not exactly endearing when having a debate. But the thing I took away was the idea that with many people it’s not possible to separate their ideas from their sense of self-worth. The Catch-22 of this whole thing is that one is often very reluctant to be rigorously critical of their self-concept, which then retards their ability to make good decisions about their closely-held ideals.
As an illustrative example, suppose my self-worth is tied into the idea that I am a popular person. It’s important for me to be well-liked by others and to fit in with the group. When I have to make a decision, the first thing I think of is whether or not those around me will approve. This isn’t necessarily a negative self-concept – fitting in with others is important to societal cohesion (imagine a world where nobody cared at all about others… deodorant sales would plummet). However, if I am not self-critical about this trait, I’m likely to be highly susceptible to peer pressure, both positive and negative. If I don’t say “well it’s good to be well-liked, but I’ve got to watch out for myself as well”, I’m probably going to go along with the crowd – possibly to a Justin Beiber concert. Furthermore, when someone says to me “hey man, Justin Beiber sucks. Why the hell are you wasting your money?”, I’m likely not going to be too receptive to that argument. Even though the idea of Justin Beiber might be completely neutral in my life, an attack on my decision to go to the show is an attack on my entire self-concept.
If, however, I am able to separate concert attendance from my most important sense of self-worth, I will be more able to dispassionately assess the idea. “Maybe I don’t have to pay $95 to see a mini Jonas Brother clone. My friends are important, but surely they won’t disown me for this one thing.” It also allows me to be more open to the idea that maybe doing what is important to others is important, but so is not going broke. Maybe sometimes I need to balance the wishes of others against my own needs.
This is a hyperbolic example, clearly. Self-worth is a much more complex psychological phenomenon than I’m able to illustrate here, but I hope the point remains clear. Ideas are good and useful things to have. However, some ideas are bad ideas – some ideas make you vulnerable to things that can hurt you. In Cara’s case, her idea that all morality is relative made her unwilling to accept the fact that things can be wrong, forcing her to argue on behalf of rapists. Nobody likes to lose an argument, obviously. The difference is how you react to being wrong. If you’re able to shrug it off and say “you know, this might be a better way of looking at it, and I have a lot to think about”, you’re more likely to walk away from losing an argument having learned something. If your reaction to losing is “if I lose this argument, it means that I am a bad or unfit person”, you’ll twist and turn and set up any number of cognitive dissonances to block yourself from even the possibility of learning.
I’m often wrong. I try to be wrong at least 3 times before I brush my teeth in the morning. It’s important to personal development to make mistakes and to learn from them. One of the most useful things about putting my ideas out there for everyone to see is that at various times, people disagree with me. Most of the people who read these are personal friends. I am lucky to have some very smart friends. If a smart person disagrees with me, my eyes light up. If they disagree and I can prevail upon them why my ideas are correct, then aside from the ego boost of winning an argument, I’ve got some supportive evidence that I might be on to something good. If they convince me that I’m wrong (i.e. I lose an argument), then I’ve learned something useful and it gives me an opportunity to reflect, refine my good ideas, and throw out the bad ones. It’s win-win for me: no matter the outcome of an argument, I become a better person.
There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma where Rufus (played by Chris Rock) says to Bethany (the main character):
“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
If we’re able to separate our ideas from how we see ourselves as people, it allows us to abandon bad ideas more easily. If, however, abandoning an idea also means abandoning our sense of self, any attack on that belief is going to be extremely emotionally jarring, and we’ll resist it at all costs. The first step towards making progress in any discussion of competing ideas is to make the debate about the idea, not the person.