If you have ever expressed an idea something along the lines of “I hate arguing with idiots,” this one is for you. Even if you haven’t, this one is probably still for you.
I love debating and formerly, arguments under the guise of “intellectual discussion” (good one, philosophers), but I’m going to talk about why I don’t do those anymore except in fairly controlled situations. I will most likely be involved with some sort of academia for the rest of my life, because let’s face it, I like words and ideas a little bit more than I like people. As such, I am no stranger to nice, sound, airtight arguments and the process involved in delivering them. Indeed, argumentation is a controlled process in my own little world; one must deliberately and cautiously breathe life into an argument, nurture it purposefully, and perhaps most importantly, know when to let go.
For the last few years, I have been a man of relatively few words. While I am perhaps just as guilty, if not more than any other individual, of rambling on endlessly about my uneventful life at dinner parties, I believe that the alarming quantity of words – both spoken and unspoken – dedicated to the task of pitting our individual worlds against those of others (and society at large), requires some scrutiny. In other words, I am great saddened by the amount of butthurt that is rammed into my face every time I go on particular social networking sites for the purpose of social networking – that is, to give a flying fuck about your life, to attempt to communicate with your person. Butthurt about healthcare reform that is aimed at increasing coverage and access, not to force hardworking citizens to pay for lazy hobos and illegal immigrants. Butthurt about two men making out, the company(s) that donate money to oppose aforementioned making out, and the subsequent backlash of people no longer choosing to spend 2.89 on a spicy chicken sandwich. Butthurt about places to be, people to see, coworkers, work, traffic, and people encountered in traffic. It’s everywhere, and it makes me want to kick off a startup that offers kittens for hugging. But instead of doing that, I’m here writing, because this is something that matters to me – why I choose not to participate in this culture of self-entitlement, and why I choose not to argue.
Observation 1: The assumptions that make up our worldview are seldom identified, let alone challenged.
If our lives are as unique as we claim that they are, then we are our own worlds, where countless components interact and intermingle in ways that we are not even cognizant of. The way we are able to look at our environment – and in more relevant terms, analyze and synthesize the information around us into ideas and arguments – cannot be more complex and expansive than the individual “world” that it comes from. It is fair to say that to some extent, we govern the laws that make up our worlds. Certain things make sense, through one mechanism or another, and are preserved; other things are discarded as absurdities. The internalized laws that allow us to distinguish right from wrong, rational from absurd, are the set of assumptions that make up our individual worlds, and they are also the gatekeepers that filter new information and arguments we receive.
I am loath to bring out the word “relative” so early, and those closest to me should surely know of my seething hatred for relativism, our reliance upon it, and how easily it is abused. The value of a particular statement or observation is commensurate to the characteristics of the worldview that subsumes it. When I offer the observation that “this cup is red,” it should be apparent that there is no intrinsic value in such a statement. However, our world parses out this information into potentially value-laden components. My little brother, upon interpreting the presence of the cup and the statement attesting to its appearance, may be reminded of the several minutes of servitude where he had to fetch iced water for me from downstairs. My friend, on the other hand, may be reminded of that night of beer pong when nobody could score the last cup. Neither of these value-based connections to an atomic statement are wrong or even falsifiable, but their truth value is relative to the set of assumptions filtering the statement.
This much should be fairly simple and not very provocative. Either should the next link – which is to peel back our level of understanding and to shift from assessing the value of the cup’s property to the cohesiveness of the statement “this cup is red.” In order for this statement to make sense under any worldview, a few more assumptions must be identified. First, the worldview must account for comprehension of the English language, or some analog that would create the same level of understanding. I will disregard the issue of identity for now, as it isn’t terribly important. Second, there must be some assumptions for classification of a group of objections under the name “cup.” Upon my desk sits three types of vessels useful for holding water – two Dixie cups, a coffee mug, and a water bottle. Under my worldview, two of these objects can be classified as cups based upon both functionality and some unquantifiable structural requirement. It is conceivable that someone only recognizes coffee mugs as “cups,” and not Dixie cups, so to point at the Dixie cup and to claim that it is red would be absurd. Finally, the most fundamental but crucial assumption is that our senses can semi-reliably convey information to us, with some exceptions. My mother seems to see the world only in the three primary colors, so this is a pretty big deal – one that has bugged philosophers since Descartes.
But I’m really not worried about Descartes here, nor am I suggesting that we should stroke our chins while pondering whether we really exist, or if that rainbow-colored Oreo is really rainbow colored. I want to emphatically push the point that the world as we see it is indeed relative to our own prior experiences. While most people accept this enthusiastically, few seem willing to accept the notion that because whatever is truth-functional for us only holds because of the set of laws governing our worldview, our views hold no particular sacred ground of “rightness.”
There are a few points to take away from this. Going back to the beginning, raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a status similar to “I hate arguing with idiots” on Facebook, or if you’ve said a statement along these lines. In light of the recent firestorm of things to be really opinionated about, I’ve seen a gold mine of such sentiments. Of course, gold is at least slightly desirable whereas the unharmonious rage of others isn’t. See, I find this funny, because underneath the veil of purported academic/intellectual supremacy, what we’re really left with is people who have it all figured out in their heads – but miss the point that so does everybody else. It’s why I bomb all of my essays at Duke – I know what I’m trying to say, but nobody else does. Basically, we might as well be idiots, except my esteemed colleagues Clara and Ken. They might be derp free. Recognizing this removes a lot of ground for conflict – different people see things differently, and depending on the magnitude of the issue, the issue being argued over might have exactly 0 social relevance.
The larger point that I will carry with me for the duration of my life more or less, is the importance of recognizing the core set of assumptions that constitute your filter. These assumptions can be modified and revised – and are constantly done so by environmental stimuli – but they are still part of what we use to understand and process information. While I’ve been capable of delivering a rather unsubstantiated tirade on how American society is particularly adept at purging people of empathy, I see those around me hitting a point at which they begin establishing their own households and families, finding their own magnetic north for moral and political values, and then defending those views tooth and nail. It’s understandable, but let me offer you one of my key assumptions about my life: while my individual existence is small, the academic tradition that my ideas are situated within, and the agenda for alleviating human suffering at a societal level, are certainly not small. Within our individual lives, it’s okay to let go and not feel attacked whenever our worldview meets a different one.
If you agree with this assumption – that there’s more to life than you and your genes, then this point should not be so unpalatable.
Next up: Religion, science, and epistemic deference.