Educated Minds, Unite!

I’ve been watching the increasing division in the United States, and working to identify solutions and constructive paths. The real trick is getting people on board, because although falsehoods, bias, skewed perspectives, and petty insults are flying Left and Right, the root issue actually has little to do with refutable facts. There isn’t a scientific paper that can demonstrate once and for all who is right and who is wrong.

Part of the issue is that the ethos simply isn’t there: people don’t trust each other. That isn’t a huge problem in and of itself. However, two destructive assumptions aggravate this mistrust: the assumption that a person who is wrong must be 100% wrong, and the assumption that you must not cooperate on anything with a person who is wrong. Hence, the real problem is that people think that they need to trust each other in order to have productive conversations and to do productive work.

Let’s examine these assumptions with the help of some historical figures.

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Follow me back in time! On our journey, you will find ideas which never stopped being helpful, but never started being popular.

Bad Idea 1 versus Aristotle

The first idea is that a person cannot entertain an idea without accepting it. If a person were able to do so, it would mark them as an educated mind (or so we think Aristotle said, which would have been one of his better ideas). Being able to entertain ideas without accepting them isn’t the only important skill by any means. However, as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have it then you’re not “educated”. The assumption that people are not and cannot be “educated” in this way lends urgency to the calls to silence people who have views that are factually incorrect or unethical, or that seem to be so, or that seem perilously close to being incorrect or unethical. From an “educated” perspective (using the definition above), this censorship can only be detrimental.

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Sculpture of Aristotle, who proved that being right about education doesn’t make you right about physics and biology.

An educated person actively seeks to be convinced of the truth and only the truth, which requires both open-mindedness and skepticism. There are countless contradictory concepts constantly competing for credence. Open-mindedness is required to let in possible truths, and skepticism is required to reject claims that are not favored by the preponderance of evidence (or which simply make no sense). Being educated also requires regular reevaluation of your beliefs, as new evidence is encountered. After all, there is no guarantee that you are correct right now.

Because an educated person is able to entertain ideas and think critically about them, even if they already believe these ideas, there is no benefit to silencing any ideas in an educated society. If they are false, then we will carefully consider them and dismiss them. If they have even the tiniest scrap of truth, that scrap is valuable for improving our picture of the truth. We just won’t use the idea farther than it is useful or ethical.

Granted, many people are not educated. They have trouble sifting truth from falsehood, and are inclined to accept or reject an entire package of ideas, even though it is neither completely true nor totally false. This inclination is a huge problem, since these uneducated people will end up believing and acting on falsities, or rejecting truths. However, the solution cannot be to limit the ideas that can be considered, in an attempt to shield people from being exposed to ideas that are false or unethical, or that seem to be so. Such limits would cripple our brains even further and reduce us from a (relatively) capable, mature society to a band of children following obsolete instructions that cannot possibly prepare us to deal with the challenges that life will throw at us, as individuals or as a species. That approach is far more likely to destroy society than it is to save it.

Instead, we must become educated, so that a person can consider any statement, including what they already believe, and compare it to their other experiences to evaluate the ways in which it may be true and false, helpful and destructive. Only then can we function as a healthy democracy.

Bad Idea 2 versus Frederick Douglass

The second destructive idea follows from the first: a person or group that stands for a harmful cause (or a cause that is similar enough to a harmful one that uneducated people get confused) must not be supported or associated with in any way. By doing so, people think it’s possible to protect society from “dangerous” ideas or values, and to punish those who support the harmful or harmful-looking cause.

The problem here is that without earnest communication between people of different beliefs, there is a near zero chance of either group learning anything valuable the other has to offer. Even if one group is one hundred percent wrong, they’re not going to learn anything from someone who doesn’t understand enough of their point of view to help them understand its flaws.

Furthermore, if we refuse to cooperate with people who believe wrong things even when they’re working on projects we ourselves would approve of, we would have to refuse to work with anybody. Most people believe things that I consider harmful, and yet I cooperate with them all the time. Furthermore, I even learn valuable insights and wisdom from them. In the much-ignored words of the late, great Frederick Douglass, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Cooperation on the common ground we can find makes the world a better place.

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Photograph of Frederick Douglass, about whom I have nothing snarky to say. Just look him up.

I suspect that those who refuse to help people with antithetical beliefs think that helping them do good would also help them do harm. While I see the logic—the cost we save them through our help on good projects can be spent on harmful ones—this train of thought is essentially a declaration of total war, or at least total passive-aggression. I can only assume that because people have forgotten how peaceful discussion works, or never learned how to engage in it, their default option for preventing others from doing harmful things is to cut them off from the rest of society, starve them for resources, and torment them at every opportunity.

However, this war is a mistake. If anything, helping people to do good will afford us more power to prevent their harm. Though they may have harmful beliefs, they will listen to those who befriend them. Listening is their necessary first step towards updating their beliefs. People we help trust that we care about them and that we have at least some common ideals and values. They show us the courtesy of respect, because we show it to them. Inversely, it is very difficult to trust and respect a person who shuns you entirely because some of your beliefs are harmful.

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Artist’s rendition of a fractured world. It looks all pretty until your taxes are raised to pay for all the new bridges.

Of course, even this basic reciprocity of respect is being squelched in society. How many people do you know whom you’ve helped and with whom you’ve been friends, who proceeded to wall themselves off from you once you said something they didn’t like, even though you were sincere? Maybe you’ve walled off a few people yourself. If this trend continues, society is going to enter a large war between two fragments, and end up as a collection of tiny pieces fighting tiny wars until there is nothing left. And very little good is going to get done.

Solution

What can you do to stop this destruction, you ask?

First, educate yourself. Seek out the most ridiculous, offensive, wrong ideas that you can think of. Think about them, and do research on why people believe them in the first place. Those people do have their own reasons, after all. If there is any truth to their ideas, that can only help you. If there is anything wrong with what you believe, it helps you to know about it. On the other hand, if someone provides a justification for their “wrong” idea that you can’t refute, that doesn’t mean their idea is right. You can do research to see if someone else has come up with a rebuttal on your behalf. Ultimately, you will probably come to the conclusion that the ideas are still wrong, but more importantly, you will now know why you think that and why other people disagree. Moreover, no matter what facts are true, you can still behave ethically and respectfully towards other people, and you can still call on others to do the same.

The second thing you can do to avert total war is to work with people you disagree with. If you don’t have any common projects, at least don’t criticize them when they do something good. Don’t even accuse them of having bad motives. Just treat them as you would treat a friend or stranger who did the same thing they did. You can’t lose if you just thank them for their good deed, and refrain from cheap shots at their expense. Take a look at the below table to see expressing your gratitude is a good idea.

Other person has malevolent motives Other person has benevolent motives
You accuse them Either they don’t care, or they feel more justified in spiting you. You alienate them.
You thank them You were polite beyond reproach, and can still intervene if they try to do harm. They may also decide not to do harm because you were nice. You build mutual respect. They will be more inclined to listen to your concerns in the future.

Table 1: Results of thanking a person doing a good deed versus accusing them of malevolent motives, based on whether or not they actually have malevolent motives.

As you can see from Table 1, you can only benefit from treating a person respectfully. In particular, if they have benevolent motives, what you say makes a huge difference. You may think you’re certain of their malevolent motives, but why take the risk? I suspect that part of you simply finds it very difficult and unpleasant to thank someone you don’t like. However, that person can usually tell how difficult it is, too, and will be more inclined to trust you if they see you take the hard route and acknowledge their good actions. If you refuse to acknowledge them, though, they’re definitely not going to trust you. Showing respect to people is win-win.

You don’t have to trust that everything a person does is good. You don’t even have to take anything they do at face value—politicians in particular are likely to seem benevolent while reinforcing the two destructive assumptions described above. You can still oppose actions you think are harmful, and show respect at the same time. Literally the only downside to being respectful is that it requires humility. Are you going to let that stop you from changing the world?

In conclusion, there is no magic truth that will solve all our problems if we all believe it. There is, however, a magic code of behavior: walk with people as far as their path matches yours, and when your paths diverge, continue on your own. When your paths loop around and oppose each other, stop walking and start talking. More importantly, start listening. If you don’t know why you’re right, educate yourself, because for all you know you may be part of the problem. Give people the opportunity to change their ways, and treat them with respect at all times, even if they are trying to do harm to you. It may be difficult, but showing respect enhances your ability to defend yourself, rather than diminishing it.

You will find walking this path moves society forward much faster than banding together and yelling at people does.

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No, these people aren’t all on the same side. That’s why it’s productive.

2 thoughts on “Educated Minds, Unite!”

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