Lots Of Ego With Little Reading Tends To Make Intellectual Discussions Worthless -> 8 Hints To Escaping That Trap

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.—Mark Twain, 1895

Literacy v. Thought

September 14, 2016

Allan Stevo

Literacy is an important tool. Few people utilize literacy for anything of thoughtful value. Yes, of course there are the basics of life that literacy provides for, something that opens up doors. Most often though thinking people abuse their literacy by choosing the wrong books. They exclusively choose books that agree with them.

This is lovely if all one seeks to do is enforce a confirmation bias, which would be the opposite of critical thinking. If you do not read in-depth and seriously entertain contrary arguments to your views, you have little ability to add light to a discussion and your ability to think critically is far inferior to what it can be.

Avoiding that discomfort is an example of choosing the wrong way to use ones literacy. This is such a vitally important issue, yet it is so often overlooked. There are some good ways to turn that around and to avoid that trap of near thoughtlessly seeking to uphold a confirmation bias.

1. Reading is a vital aspect of having intelligent insight on a topic

You need to pick up books. You need to think as you read. You need to especially spend time on details of an argument, consequences of an argument, the thought process and theory of an argument, and especially those aspects that feel most threatening. Some people find that having a pen in hand and giving themselves permission to mark a book makes the critical internal conversation with the author and the interplay with ideas presented more enthusiastic and vibrant. Whatever your trick for achieving this, you must get in touch with challenging ideas that are not comfortable to you and to practice asking tough questions in response to ideas that are very comfortable to you.

You need to challenge your comfort level constantly or your intellectual growth will be stymied and you will be left little more than a proponent of a trite idea. As it comes out of your mouth, that idea will feel immediately stale to a perceptive onlooker, not because it is necessarily a stale idea, but because you have allowed it to grow stale. You have taken an opinion and settled on it as a truth. You have grown stale. Your voice speaking of it betrays the fact that you do not recognize the dynamic nature of thought and the world, but believe that there are opinions unable to be challenged or undeserving of challenge. You take opinions and allow them to settle into unchallenged facts. Challenging oneself is necessary. Challenging ones own views is necessary, especially the most closely held intimate views. Reading is a very important keystone to that process.

Some people can do this without reading. Those people it seems are on the magnitude of 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 5,000, whereas societally people who think they have this uncommon ability are on the magnitude of 1 in 5.

2. Thinking through an issue is a vital aspect of intelligent insight

If you are not following this process, and in some way thinking through an issue, challenging details piece-by-piece, challenging your sacred cows constantly, you are lacking vital aspects necessary to have anything of value to add to a discussion because you are denying yourself the opportunity to have intelligent insight in a matter.

As a general rule, the aspects of someone’s argument that make you feel most uncomfortable are the ones that you most need to accept and teach yourself to understand. You may not side with them ultimately, but for your own edification, those ideas need your thorough consideration.

Cherry picking the comfortable ideas does not help you grow, it merely helps you to enforce your existing biases. Do that and you are abusing the potential of literacy as a tool for thought and doing little more than making it a tool for enforcing confirmation bias.

3. The Hinlicky Rule or some version of that thought process must be utilized to guide your thinking

A good way to seek some intelligent insight in order to have great understanding of the arguments of others, thereby broadening your understanding of a subject area is to follow a dictum like that contained in the Hinlicky rule:

“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.”


4. Having strong feelings means little and tends to be a blinding factor

Everyone has strong feelings. Sometimes those strong feelings are a powerful engine behind a well thought out helmsman. Seldom is that the case. Strong feelings are almost always a sign that someone is missing an important perspective. Strong feelings are almost always a sign that a person has not done the necessary due diligence required of a thinking person (following a thought process like the Hinlicky Rule) in order to have granted himself permission to have those strong feelings.

Even after those strong feelings have been granted permission behind a capable helmsman, they need to constantly be checked and re-checked. You must constantly check your map against the terrain around you. One is but a representation of the other. You must constantly check your heading. You must constantly check if you still want to go to where you set out. You must constantly check if conditions have changed and your decision of absolute certainty from ten minutes ago is now nullified.

Where there are strong feelings, I generally find a weak helmsman or no helmsman at all. We all have stresses and energies that need releasing – pretending that because you suddenly have strong feelings you have any business being involved in an intellectual discussion among thinking people, let alone doing so in an impassioned way – is both an inefficient way to release stress and an ineffective way to engage in an intellectual discussion.

5. Being offended means little and tends to be a blinding factor

It’s been pointed out to me by a friend who is an avid consumer of world media that “I’m offended” is a concept only ever tolerated in America as a way of getting out of serious intellectual debate. What a joke that such a concept is at all allowed.

I’m offended is a particularly pernicious example of strong feelings being a blinding factor, because it pretends that someone else is somehow responsible for you being able to manage your own emotions. In the user of it we have the example of a person who does not take responsibility for his or her own feelings, a person who, with high probability, does not take responsibility for ones intellectual honesty, and a person who does not take responsibility for what he or she owes another before speaking to a thinking person in an intellectual discussion.

What an ugly trifecta exists in the user of the words “I’m offended,” almost so much so that the invoking of the words or the underlying concept should be enough to discontinue discussion with the person with a laugh and a denunciation so strident that he or she will understand how misplaced such a term is among thinking people having an intellectual discussion and never want to publicly invoke such a concept in that environment again.

It is truly a ugly mark on American society that such a unthinking concept has gained such acceptance in the places it least belongs.

6. Your recognition or your intellectual inadequacy on a topic is a decent way to approach a topic

Humbleness, leave behind ego, leave behind heated up, hot head attitudes, leave behind anything resembling pride. Come into a discussion like Socrates, the master thinker, ready to profess ignorance and to be taught something new.

7. You have every right to speak but out of decency you probably shouldn’t

Freedom of speech is an inviolable right. You have whatever right you take for yourself. If you recognize your own ignorance you are a step ahead of many. If you recognize your own ignorance and let it guide you in hushing your ego driven need to speak, long enough for you to learn something of lasting and penetrating value from even the most reprehensible conversation partner, you have done yourself a great service.

If you can’t follow a thought process like this one, or the Hinlicky Rule or something similar, you probably shouldn’t be speaking. I want to underline that issue – it is not the job of government censorship to limit speech responsibly, limiting speech responsibly is primarily the job of the person who feels they need to speak.

In every discussion you should analyze your level of ability on a topic and analyze your level of certainty. On almost every topic there is a whole lot to learn. Even a dilettante can see that fact when looking honestly at a problem.

8. In honest intellectual discussion be especially wary of the well-educated or those who perceive themselves as such

Marketers have long been studying the American psyche in an attempt to more effectively sell products. Marketers recognize that the combination of advanced degrees and egos makes a person especially susceptible to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency of a person to re-enforce what they already believe in. This is an enemy of critical thinking. This makes the described demographic a challenging audience for marketers seeking to introduce new ideas. This also makes them a challenging audience for anyone else introducing new ideas.

A generally effective way of making a person feel even more invested in the status quo is to ensure they receive more education. The academy in this environment becomes intellectually inbred and the opposite of a haven for thought, it becomes a fine place for building up the ego of its individual participants.

Not surprisingly, an advanced degree is often license in some circles to have an ego. Advanced degrees can be a stepping stone to doing amazing things in life. At the same time plenty of people with advanced degrees are doing things that are not benefited by the advanced degree. Ego in such situations is undeserving.

If you are to be intellectually honest with yourself and others you should back down from being passionately insistent in virtually all arguments. This is a sign that you are seeking out actual thought. You probably can use more patience and more study, both of which will help you recognize how many times you have pretended to know so much while actually knowing so little and hopefully will aid the diligent truth-seeker in refraining from such behavior in the future.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling 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.

Photo credit: Jens Schott Knudsen, blog.pamhule.com

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