May 8, 2016
As a result of some of my more controversial writing, my involvement on boards of directors, my speaking to groups of students at colleges and universities, my political consulting work, and general facets of life, I often find myself in discussions with people on topics about opinions that they hold dear.
Common Limitations to Discussion
In such discussions, it is almost instantaneously apparent who is able to carry out an intellectually rigorous discussion and who cannot.
Those who cannot, generally 1. spout someone else’s opinion as if it were indisputable fact, and occasionally 2. spout their own opinion as if it were indisputable fact. Those two examples are most common. I also commonly encounter those who 3. choose not to believe in fact and couldn’t care less about an intellectual discussion as well as those who 4. are not of sufficient mental capacity to engage in intellectually rigorous discussions.
Of these four styles I commonly encounter, the latter two are far superior, for those utilizing them so clearly recognize their own limitations, which is a mark of honesty that makes interactions so much more authentic and fulfilling. Honesty is a necessary component of intellectually rigorous discussion.
Those who repeat the opinions of others as if they were indisputable fact or their own opinions as if they were indisputable fact can be such horrible partners in discussion because a sense of intellectual honesty is absent.
Contrary to what such a person seems to believe about themselves, when stuck in such a mindset they can be entirely incapable of honest intellectual discussion. Not coincidentally they have proven, not only to me, but to thinking people throughout time to be the most horrible partners in discussion and such a seemingly minor absence of intellectual honesty has led to such horrible results when it finds its way into the hands of someone with power. The English language has distinct definitions for “fact” and “opinion,” and that the two words be used precisely and the differing concepts of the two words be preserved is vital to honest intellectual discussion.
Fact or Opinion, a Key Distinction, and the Life Work of Ignaz Semmelweis
In the social sciences there is no fact, only opinion. While I do not know if this is always the case, this has always been the case in every instance I have seen. Even the sciences themselves tend to have a surprising amount of working theories. The history of science is in fact filled with popular theories that were later debunked. Sometimes great revulsion accompanies the effective challenging of a long-held scientific theory. Violence can even ensue.
I am reminded of the innovative Ignaz Semmelweis, a man ahead of his time, who insisted the reason women were dying by the droves in Vienna hospitals was because of the tradition of physicians passing quite casually between the autopsy table and the birthing area and quite calmly bringing the putridity of the autopsy table on filthy unwashed hands with them. It was greatly offensive to some to suggest that gentlemen could possibly have unclean hands, though the odor of putridity on their hands was often apparent. Semmelweis insisted that something from the corpses were making the women sick, traveling on the hands of physicians, and he correspondingly recommended that a disinfectant solution be used.
This sounded absolutely crazy to so many at the time yet was so accurate. Little creatures, too small to see, were traveling on the hands of physicians. The few clinics that Semmelweis was able to influence procedures in had an immediate decline in deaths from birthing. This evidence did not change the fact that the literature and establishment thinking of the time did not support these theories and so they went unheard. Himself recognizing the overwhelming evidence in favor of this small “offensive” change and seeing the tremendous pain and risk caused to patients by the outlandish status quo, he became increasingly belligerent and made the spreading of this fact an important goal of his life, presenting his arguments on the need for disinfecting the hands of doctors to anyone who would listen.
The man sounded so strange to society that he was patently ignored and ultimately found himself in a mental asylum committed by his own wife. He died shortly after being admitted, probably as a result of being badly beaten by guards when he first arrived at the asylum and tried to walk right out the door he had just been tricked to walk through.
Medical literature came around to his view on the topic, though it remains surprisingly difficult still a century and a half later to get doctors to wash their hands adequately. It’s almost as if they can’t imagine the thought that they might be carriers of disease. In theory Semmelweis has prevailed, in practice quite the battle remains. The inroads made by the “crazy” Semmelweis and those who came after him have been monumental.
How many women have survived child birth since then because of the insistence of this seemingly crazy man to simply be heard? How many women died because of the tendency of those holding established views to confound the definitions of fact and opinion? What other life saving innovations might the world have known if the great gulf between fact and opinion were not taken so personally when challenged, were not such an affront to the ego of the educated man?
Listening to Respond and Listening to Understand
The issue of accepting the distinct definitions “fact” and “opinion,” while vital, is but a small step toward honest intellectual debate. Far more developed and important is to speak not for the sake of responding, but to truly understand the perspective of the other.
The most important part of an intellectual discussion is the capable absorption and thorough understanding of an idea that is the contra to your own. This tends to be such a challenging concept for so many.
You must understand that opposing view inside and out. That can be hard work and uncomfortable. It’s easy though, and common, to avoid that hard work and discomfort by simply attacking the person you are speaking to as being in some way an unfit or invalid conversational partner.
Though discussions tend to leave less thoughtful parties judging the mental competency or morality of an intellectual opponent, seldom is the believer of a strongly held idea a bad person or mentally deficient. If that were the case, a shift in popular opinion on any issue would be enough to render a person who does not shift mentally deficient or a bad person. Or in the converse might suddenly render a mentally deficient person or bad person to be the opposite because he or she now suddenly happens to hold a popular opinion when popular opinion shifts toward that individual’s long-held opinion.
Limitations of Popular Opinion
Popular opinion tends to have limitations. In fact, it has been my experience, that the majority is generally wrong. Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest boldly stated “Everything popular is wrong.” Robert Heinlein in the thought provoking Time Enough for Love posited “Does history record any case in which the majority was right?” As Mark Twain, the clever contrarian pointed out in a private notebook that has since be perused by Twain researchers “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to reform.” Feeling a little less pithy but nonetheless displeased with popular opinion he also wrote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.”
These quotes appear to be reactionary statements and a gross overgeneralization, but the idea that a popularly held opinion is a wrong opinion is generally accurate. That’s true for many reasons, just one reason that popular opinion is so effective at being wrong can be seen in one of the common methods by which popular opinion tends to form.
The Formation of Popular Opinion
For an opinion to be held by a majority of society, that opinion must go through a variety of mutations and processes in order to eventually reach that level of acceptance.
For example, a popular opinion might start with some thinker producing an innovative idea. He or she understands the idea inside and out after 40 years of work and testing. Some people will hear the idea directly from him, there may be feedback, the idea may be shaped by that feedback.
Others will read the idea. Perhaps they will read several books on the topic from different perspectives and will see the limitations and strengths of the idea as they truly are, much like the original thinker can see the strengths and limitations. They may even tell themselves, with great honesty, that they will never fully understand the idea and that the idea must be one that they constantly revisit and study in order to feel comfortable speaking with some authority on the topic, constantly ready to profess ignorance and to even deep down feel some level of ignorance, admitting that they, just like anyone else do not have all the answers.
Others may only read one book on the topic. Reading but one book on a topic may make someone feel like an authority, especially if the book caries the tone of being a well-argued piece. Yet being an authority would be an overstatement since that book is likely to present an argument held by an author over other arguments that might be equally valid. Equally valid arguments might not even be mentioned by an author.
The great veil of certainty created by a superficial education on a topic is one of the ugliest tendencies among intellectuals. How common it is for someone to obtain an advanced degree, read a book, or skim an article and the then conclude that everything they know on a topic is incontestable truth. This confirmation bias among the faux intelligent has long been recognized by marketers. The more schooling one gets, the harder it is to convince that person of a new idea. They are the intelligentsia, but that does not make them intelligent.
Some will read but an article on the topic. Simply reading about any topic in article form there tends to be such great distortions of important themes, as brevity necessitates, and the biased and simplified nature typical of reporting necessitates.
Even well-written investigative pieces for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, all publications that have a reputation for excellent long form investigative articles by fantastic writers on generous editorial calendars bring with them limitations.
The extent of these limitations become even more obvious with fewer words and tighter editorial calendars. The 500 or 800 word article by the overworked daily news reporter being the least helpful for understanding an idea. Reading a daily news source or subscribing to Vanity Fair might be enough to make one feel like they know it all. Yes, regular reading habits like these certainly help put a person in the top ten percent of knowledgeable people, but it is not details of fact that bring intellectual honesty, but the overarching structure of the person’s intellect and with that overarching structure the unquenchable desire to get closer to truth.
Is the person rigorous about his intellectual honesty and seeking to constantly challenge what he knows and identify what he doesn’t know? If not, the pride given by being a subscriber of a well-written, well-researched publication has left that subscriber further away from intellectual honesty than he would be without the subscription. That dishonest foundation is a poor one on which to build a sense of accomplishment in life. It takes so much energy to keep on top of what opinions are popular rather than building a framework that welcomes all opinions.
So many do exactly that though, they build a foundation that concerns itself more with popular thinking than intellectually rigorous thinking. This makes insightful and effective challenges to the status quo aberrant to such a person, rather than a natural phenomena to roll with as life ebbs and flows out of the control of any one individual. It’s a truly frightening world for the intellectually dishonest person because his foundation of facts and relationships and a false sense of authority can be so difficult to replicate where there is not an overarching intellectually rigorous mind.
Lucky for him, most of society cannot pick up on what a fraud he is because he speaks with a sense of authority and arrogance that appeal to many who find it an honor to simply be around a well-read person. There’s an impoverished and petty view there, in which new ideas are a constant threat rather than an amazing opportunity for an intellectual adventure.
An intellectually rigorous mind finds abundance in the world and knows no status quo for he or she can think effectively through every situation. For an intellectually rigorous mind there are no threats in change. This characteristic is a benefit, for as time has proven, change is the only constant. The intellectually rigorous mind prepares for a tumultuous reordering of his mind every time he opens a book, confident in his ability to handle such tumult and to think through all situations. He even seeks books that he hopes might do that. This is very different than the know-it-all who derives significance from reading the proper publications and holding the proper beliefs. The extent of the limitations of reading a mere article can indeed be very limiting.
Some will only read a headline. Some who read a headline and will tell others about it. Such a person may perhaps even fill in the blanks and fudge some of the details to sound more knowledgeable than the reading of a headline would support. Discussions will take place. Some will engage in those discussions at varying levels of insight. The news might begin to introduce the idea in reports with negative tonality in the media that will over time turn into supportive tonality. Some viewers will latch onto that idea and maintain the original negative association that new ideas tend to be introduced to the public with, others will reform their thinking once the positive associations begin.
The idea will become a talking point. Lawmakers will begin to like the idea. The talking points will take a political shift. Advocates of the idea will spawn other advocates of the idea, some of who will not even know why they advocate for the idea beyond the statement “Someone I really like/trust/value/know well told me this was a good idea and I believed that person.” Sometimes it is “Someone I really like was told by someone who they really like that this was a good idea.” By the time this idea has made its way through society, it has been shaped by so many different variations that are so far from the original intent that it has lost a great deal of value.
What was once a well-formed concept and theory, carefully thought through over the course of a career or lifetime, has now become nothing more than a soundbite simple enough to be capably held in the mind of people to whom a deeper understanding of the topic would be anathema, but to whom the repetition of the soundbite as fact is natural.
Here the concept takes on an orthodoxy – literally meaning “correct opinion” – and the challenging of it in its watered down state becomes a threatening sacrilege to many in a society.
The Overestimation of the Popular and the Importance of the Hinlicky Rule
The overestimation of the popular and the lack of thought on how easily and often thoughtlessly beliefs are formed has led to small arguments, great wars, and everything in between. Anything that can allow a person to step back from that tendency to view the self, ones own behaviors, and ones own beliefs as central to the universe is a tool that can be helpful in engaging in intellectual discussion.
The Hinlicky Rule does precisely that. It does it so effectively that I would argue no one has any place speaking without obedience to the concepts contained within it. I do not mean that as a statement of support for state sponsored censorship. I mean that in the exact opposite way – we have personal rights and responsibilities.
One of those responsibilities is that a person has the responsibility to opt out of offering opinions in a discussion if he or she cannot follow the Hinlicky Rule and should instead inquisitively and openly engage in the asking of questions. No one should invoke the power of the state to censor a person unwilling to do this, but it is acceptable to walk away or change the subject on a person who is obstinately unwilling to fulfill this basic responsibility of absorbing the legitimacy of the argument of an intellectual opponent before proceeding with a discussion. That is your right as a conversational partner when faced with someone unwilling to fulfill the basic responsibility of listening so that an honest intellectual debate is taking place.
The Hinlicky Rule, Shedding Light, and Shedding Heat
For one who wants to shed light, such a discussion would be a poor use of time, in fact, the point of speaking to one who prefers not to listen would be unclear. Often in such discussions there are those that only want to fight for the sake of fighting, who appreciate the energy that such a one-sided discussion helps release, and who find joy in the negative feelings created between two people during a heated exchange with no resolution of understanding. None of those are reasons I have discussions.
Regardless of why I personally have discussions, discussion is a legitimate way to accomplish those aforementioned goals of fighting, energy release, and fostering ill will, however that type of discussion would not be an honest intellectual debate – it would be but an attempt at releasing emotion, which could be done just as easily through loudly expressed, non-linguistic utterances and threatening physiology. Why bother to pretend to even engage in a discussion when grunting, some eye contact, and a little chest puffing is enough to do the job? The Hinlicky Rule so effectively steers us clear of that pitfall on the journey to seeking greater truth in the world around us. The Hinlicky Rule is:
“You shall not criticize the position of another…until you can state that position with such accuracy, completeness and sympathy, that the opponent himself declares, ‘Yes, I could not have said it better myself!‘ Then, and only then, may you criticize. For then you are engaging a real alternative and advancing a real argument. Otherwise you shed only heat, not light.”
The Importance of Humbleness and Admissions of Ignorance in Honest Discussion
How seldom such a thing is done. It would quite naturally be too damaging to the modern ego to profess ignorance like Socrates or carry oneself with occasional humbleness like Jesus. Yet, that is precisely what intellectual debate demands of you – honesty. It’s an honesty in desiring to know the truth as best as you possibly can, an honesty to know the many components that are shaped through many open interactions with many thinkers; it’s an honesty to recognize that you are very limited in your own personal resources, no matter how incredibly brilliant you are, and that there is an intellectual crucible to honest human intellectual interaction that can help refine any idea; there is an honesty in recognizing the difference between fact and opinion.
The Hinlicky Rule, in providing a basis for that process, allows honest intellectual discussion to occur in a way that it could not in its absence, making the Hinlicky Rule a vital foundation of honest intellectual discussion.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.