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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Primer in Ideological Discourse

After witnessing a series of embarrassing attempts at ideological discourse by “experts” and talking heads who should know better, it’s become clear that it’s time for me to come out of the closet. The rumors are true. I was debate team president in high school.

I wasn’t always the dark, indie rocker chick who’s piqued your morbid curiosity. I used to be intelligent and well-informed. Although I no longer dress in power suits and begin sentences with words like “Resolved:,” I still love to discuss anything and everything with anyone and everyone. Whether it’s religion, politics, social policy, or the merits of scented candles, I’m open to sharing my opinion and respectfully considering yours.

I’ve learned over the years, however, that there’s an art to ideological discourse and it’s become clear we’re losing it. Maybe it’s ignorance, maybe it’s laziness, I don’t know, but it’s time to put a hold on the discussions of ideas and discuss discussing instead.

Here are some tips that could benefit anyone interested in sounding intelligent.

  1. If you’re not smart enough to articulate an opinion, you’re not smart enough to have an opinion.

I’m going to say something that may create enemies. Brace yourself.

It’s ok not to have an opinion.

That’s right. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re not well-versed enough in a subject to discuss it. In fact, it takes a great deal of intelligence to grasp your own understanding of the world. That includes acknowledging what you don’t know as much as what you do. You can’t be an expert on everything. To pretend you are is just going to make you sound stupid when you try.

Knowledge and understanding is organic. It’s always growing, changing, and adapting to your experience and environment. The problem is, we’ve been taught to fear ignorance and hide it at all costs. But, disguising a hole is not going to fill it. Ignorance is not an enemy when you embrace it, only when you deny it. If you don’t know something, shut your mouth and listen.

When someone asks how our government can possibly condone the destruction of the long-haired warpit beetle, it’s perfectly fine to say, “oh? I’m not aware of that debate.” Clearly this person has more information than you do. Clearly warpit beetles have a prominent place in her life. Now’s your chance to learn something.

You nod. You listen. You nod some more. You ask a couple clarifying questions. You smile and thank her. If you’re bored out of your mind, you eventually change the subject, but you tuck away that valuable info about the warpit beetle. Because here’s the thing, one day you may encounter the subject of warpit beetles again and this time you can actually open your mouth for a brief moment. See, you’ve listened and learned, and now you get to say, “oh? I’ve heard that …” and then you shut your mouth and listen some more and learn something else about warpit beetles.

That’s how knowledge works. Eventually, you will have enough information and consideration to actually have an opinion on the government’s destruction of long-haired warpit beetles. Then you get to be the bore at the party preaching about insects.

  1. The quickest way to prove you’re clueless is to insult your opponent.

This one is obvious in theory, yet, in practice seems to stump even the most noted public figures.

Here’s a story about something that will never happen:

Sally and Stanley disagree about the current tax code. Sally calls Stanley a greedy crook. Stanley determines he is in fact a greedy crook and therefore Sally’s stance is correct.

That sounds stupid because it is. Discussion Tip #2 tends to blend closely with Discussion Tip #1. When you try to take on a subject that’s out of your league, you’re going to run out of material. That’s when it becomes tempting to use your only weapon: insult grenades.

Now, I understand there are other reasons people resort to name-calling. Maybe you’re just mean. Maybe you hate people. Maybe you’re late and don’t have the heart to say you can’t chat so you call them a dirty racist instead. Whatever the reason may be, it’s never going to strengthen your position in the eyes of the masses.

When someone presents a well-thought out stance on a subject and you respond with “dumb commie,” guess which one of your arguments gains traction with observers. You certainly didn’t win any points with your opponent. You don’t sound passionate. You won’t make people nod in agreement. You sound like someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I recently read a blog entry discussing a popular athlete who took a strong, thoughtful stance on a political topic. I haven’t researched the incident so I can’t verify the facts, but for the sake of the illustration we’ll assume they’re accurate. In response to this athlete’s stance, a public figure made a crack linking the athlete’s children to the KKK. Yes, that’s right. A famous, supposedly educated adult thought the best way to demonstrate his exception to someone’s belief was to publicly attack children. I’m not sure how he thought that would further his cause unless there are actually Klan members subscribing to his twitter account. In which case…oh never mind.

The point is, you look stupid. You look mean. You look like someone no one wants to listen to.

  1. Stereotyping is a coping mechanism, not a science. Don’t believe everything your brain tells you.

Here’s a bonus tip. I’m not just a former debate team president, I also have a degree in psychology. So let’s thrill my parents and put it to use.

Humans take shortcuts. We have to in order to survive the massive amount of stimuli we encounter each day. We process it all by classifying objects, situations, and people into groups. It’s too hard to consider every nuance of everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell so our brains bump them into classes and assign the appropriate characteristics we’ve come to associate with those groups. It’s not a bad process, and it’s right a lot of the time.

The problem is, it’s wrong some of the time too, and ignorance only increases the likelihood. That’s what stereotypes are. We make assumptions about people based on the group in which we place them.

The opposite is true as well which poses a problem. We apply characteristics to a group based on our experience with one of its members.

Both scenarios can be disastrous when we allow that instinct to creep into our ideological discussions.

This subject is a blog entry itself and probably will be at a later point in time. For now, know this, when discussing a topic with someone, you will have to fight against that instinct to make assumptions. You may think you know where someone is going with a thought, you may think you know what’s in their head that they haven’t said, you may think a lot of things that are completely wrong. If you don’t obey rule #3, you will both be breaking rule #2 in no time.

You’re full of nuances and don’t always fit whatever stereotype other people want to dump on you, so don’t do it to them. Otherwise, you will inevitably hear arguments that aren’t there and alienate the speaker before you even get to present your own points.

The opposite is true too. We all mess up all the time and aren’t always shining examples of the groups we’re supposed to represent. We hope people don’t apply our mistakes to our peers, so we have to resist the urge to do that to others.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.

You used to think unicorns danced on rainbows and a little fairy flew around collecting severed human teeth. You used to think being an astronaut was a viable career path and it was ok to run through a sprinkler naked. You were wrong. It’s ok, we all thought that.

But guess what, we’re still wrong a lot. We aren’t magically cured of being wrong as we get older, we just cling harder to our delusions.

Look, I’m not saying it’s not ok to believe strongly in something. Of course it is. This whole practice of exchanging ideas becomes boring and falls apart if we don’t have convictions and opinions. I’m just saying, stay open. Believe what you’ve considered, what you can support. And if over the course of time and research and discussions, you begin to see validity in other views, don’t fear them. Don’t see it as failure, see it as refining your own understanding, polishing your own arguments and foundation.

For some reason we tend to fear knowledge and ideas that are different, even though a lot of time understanding divergent views may actually strengthen your own position. Studying a subject or a view doesn’t mean you agree with it, just that you’re not afraid of it.

In debate, it’s critical that you understand the other side as well as your own. You can’t argue and evaluate something you don’t comprehend. Your opponent won’t take you seriously if you can’t prove you have a global grasp of a subject.

Think about it this way.

Maybe you hate warpit beetles. They ate through your tomato plants and scare the crap out of your children. Neither of those will win the government destruction debate. But when Suzy steps up on her soapbox at your picnic and cries about the government’s approval to drill in their native breeding ground, you may gain steam when you point out that their “native” breeding ground is actually in Africa and they were artificially transplanted here where they have no natural predators and have destroyed several ecosystems throughout the pacific northwest. Now Suzy has to shut up and listen too if she doesn’t want to sound stupid. Understanding the opposition got you a lot more traction than, “well, whatever. Those dang things is ugly.”

There are plenty of other tips that can help in any discussion, but let’s summarize them with one word: respect. Respect the speaker, respect the subject, respect the audience. By doing that, your own ideas and opinions are going to gain the respect of those around you. Friends and acquaintances will learn that they can trust you’ve been fair and thoughtful with your stance. That you’re the one people need to shut up and listen to. And who knows, maybe one day it’ll be you that inspires the historic national debate on warpit beetles.

(Editor’s note: Allison currently has no set opinion on the destruction of warpit beetles if they do in fact exist.)