The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

Immigration and City Rebuilding

I find myself in an interesting position when I think about immigration in the United States. I don’t have incredibly strong or fully informed views on immigration, and I find myself ending up at intersections where competing values push in opposing directions. From an economic perspective I agree with researchers who say that immigration is crucial for our national, and even global economy. From a human rights perspective, it feels imperative that we allow people languishing in terrible situations in foreign countries to have the opportunity to move to the US where their living standards will automatically increase substantially. However, I understand people’s hesitation to change and their fear of outsiders. I don’t want to accept these hesitations and fears, but I know they are real and I see how forcing change and immigration upon reluctant people can have disastrous consequences for society as a whole. I’m not sure how much we should restrict immigration to avoid this backlash, or whether we should just push forward with the immigration our economy needs.

 

What is clear to me is that the United States is not prepared to have this discussion in a reasonable and rational manner at the Federal level. It is my sense that there are more people aligned with the Democrats who are willing to be moderate (as I am) and are willing to compromise on important values such as human fairness, flourishing, and lifting the global poor for what feels like the psychological well being of xenophobic members of the Republican party. I don’t feel the same mindset from people within the Republican party, although this could just be a bias due to my media bubble. My sense is that a feeling of fear has taken root within the Republican party and derailed any reasonable national level discussion around immigration.

 

However, on smaller scales, I think the parties have more parity. In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write, “American cities could not have revived as they have in the absence of large-scale immigration. Moreover, dramatic levels of immigrant entrepreneurship in cities as diverse as Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis are powerful reminders of how cities were built and rebuilt over generations.”

 

On the local level, the individuals who form the parties and drive government, part committees, local businesses, non-profits, and foundations can align on topics such as immigration even though on a national level the same individuals cannot agree. Within the city rebuilding is a continuous process, and compromises don’t have to be absolute and binding forever. At this level, immigration is personal and not abstract, and those who immigrate from outside can bring new ideas, exciting energy, and in some ways a fearless attitude that can help stakeholders align and connect, regardless of their political beliefs. Cities are not static, and this evolving nature allows for a moderate and reasonable discussion around immigration which is helping to fuel the revival of cities and metropolitan areas across the nation. My hope is that  this local level action can percolate upward and help us to have more informed and reasonable discussions on immigration at the highest levels of government in the United States. Sound local governance surrounding immigration with cities and metropolitan regions leading the way can hopefully be a federalist spark to tackle the thorny issue of immigration nationally.

Talking to People We Disagree With

It is hard to talk to people you disagree with and I’m sure that each year across the United States thousands of Thanksgiving dinners are ruined when someone kicks off a bitter argument with their uncle. Colin Wright gives us a template to use when talking to someone with whom we disagree in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be:

 

“There’s a discussion method I like to use when I’m having a conversation with someone with whom I disagree, but who seems to be open to sharing their thoughts and learning about my opposing view-points. The rules are that neither of us will aim to offend or assume offense is intended by the other, that we primarily ask questions and give answers, focusing on saying why we believe what we do rather than saying why we don’t believe the opposite, and we avoid using labels. If we do use labels at any point, they have to be thoroughly defined.”

 

I think these are terrific rules to use for having a meaningful conversation with someone. The final point, avoiding labels, is really crucial. Our labels are often quite mean without us intending them to be mean. To people we disagree with, our labels are often ways to straw-man their entire set of views or identity (calling someone a Bible-Thumper is a clear example which implies they are unthinkingly fanatical about religion). Forcing yourself and your communication partner to define labels helps you to both draw out new connections you previously had not made. When you have to define what you mean by the labels you offhandedly use, you will become more precise with your thinking and your own arguments will become more clear for people who don’t always use the same label that you so casually use.

 

Wright’s other rules help ensure the disagreement moves in a reasonable direction. When you only say, “I don’t believe XYZ” and don’t offer a different interpretation or understanding of reality, then you are really just causing havoc. It should also be acceptable for you or someone else to say, “I don’t believe XYZ, but I don’t know exactly what would replace it.” Being honest about your doubts and your lack of complete alternatives is a better way to have a conversation than to engage in a back and forth version of “your idea is stupid.”

 

One suggestion I would have for anyone trying to implement Wright’s disagreement model is to be very careful with the types of questions that you ask. It is important not to ask fake “gotcha” questions. I wrote about fake questions in the context of coaching, and it is easy in debate to do the same thing. When you ask a fake question you are not trying to get more information from the other person, but instead trying to make them look dumb. Certainly you will both ask each other questions that reveal areas of thought that are not fully developed, but the key is not to reveal these areas in an attempt to win an argument, but to find the boundary of well thought versus unconsidered possibilities.

A Better Way to Debate and Argue

One thing I am not that great at is having meaningful discussions where I explain my thinking within a given area without bombarding my interlocutor with reasons why my point of view or conclusion is the best. I would like to be better at explaining the values that I consider important in a given area and what decisions I have made that lead me to adopt the world view that I have. What I usually end up doing, is arguing about a set of “facts” and debating at a high level something that can only be understood by examining the small details that build up to the final decision.

 

What I would like to develop is a skill that seems to be missing more and more in today’s discourse, especially around politics. While I don’t think it is anything new for people to respond to their counterparts in a debate with witty and sharp criticisms, there is a big difference between saying something snide in a face to face debate or critiquing an idea or person in a news paper and sending out tweets and posts that straw-man another person’s argument for your own audience while receiving instant feedback and applause for comments made in bad faith. This puts us in a place where we really don’t so much debate ideas, people, or politics, but we try to win arguments by putting down other people. We really don’t make any deep considerations about our thoughts, feelings, or ideas but instead grab onto what intuitively feels right (or what is counter the point of our adversary) and develop a narrative and set of facts around the thing that is convenient for us to believe.

 

Author Colin Wright is someone who also thinks this is a problem. In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be he writes, “We need to be capable of comparing the information and perspective that we have with that of other people. In order to combine the information we’ve collected in this way, we need to be capable of having valuable, productive discussions, rather than simply propagandizing at each other all the time.” It is valuable to work to cultivate a space where you can start at the bottom with your core values and beliefs and work your way up to the larger decisions that you have made. By better examining your values, you can better explain the way you think, and it is OK to express doubt or uncertainty about the exact nature of what is happening and the facts surrounding the situation while you are building your argument in this way. Being able to better share information and explain our ideas will help discourse be more meaningful and it will reduce the threat levels in our arguments and debates. There may be times for propagandizing each other, but in most of our conversations we would probably be better off if we could be more explanatory than inflammatory. A recommendation I would have when starting this process is to focus on what is in your own self-interest, and be aware of the times when the thing you believe just happens to align with what is in your own self-interest. If you find that your beliefs all match exactly with your self-interest, it may be worth being more critical of your views and asking if you are just developing beliefs to defend your self-interest, or if you truly do believe those things on merits beyond your own personal gain.

Can We Change the Thoughts of Others?

A topic that has come up again and again for me since the November 2016 election is the idea that we may not be able to change anyones thinking through discussion, debate, or argument. People become so entrenched in beliefs, and are so reluctant to hearing information that does not support their opinion that we are not able to change anyone’s thought patterns besides our own. Author Ryan Holiday addresses this idea in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, by writing,

“You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.”

I think that Holiday is correct, but I think the real message from his quote above is the idea that you must find common ground with another before you look to change the way they think. People will discredit those who think differently from them and ignore information, even an Everest sized mountain of information indicating their views are incorrect. Speaking with people, listening to their views, understanding why they think a certain way, and offering our perspective are the only ways to honest communicate with others.

I recently listened to episode 174 of the podcast, Decode DC, and they brought on a guest to discuss this exact problem. The show features an interview with Canadian professor Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg who did a study of American’s and beliefs. He offered participants 10 dollars to read 8 statements disagreeing with their views, or 7 dollars to read 8 statements that were in line with their views. About 60 percent of people chose less money and read the statements that reinforced their views. In the episode, Dr. Frimer offers the same advice as Holiday, you must listen to the other person, understand their views, and identify your commonality before you can begin to discuss differences.

I believe we have begun to attach politics to our identify in a new way, and our social media infused world tells us that we should have a voice and opinion for any given situation. With political ideology being incorporated with our identity, political views seem to be coupled with who we are in a dangerous entrenched manner. We feel compelled to be resolute in our identity, and any information that does not align is a threat to our fundamental being. I don’t have fully developed thoughts and ideas on how social media and a pressure to build political ideology have become infused with our ideology, but if my ideas are correct, then the only way to have a civil discussion with someone is to follow the advice of Holiday and Frimer and disarm first ourselves when discussing our differences (especially political) with another person.

Bargains

In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface.  Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives.  One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in  the world.

 

In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”

 

I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion.  Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance.  Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.

 

What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.