A Method in a Time of Madness

In a previous post (August 1st) on resistance to wearing masks I was asked about going a little deeper on what I believe divides people on this particular issue and others similar to it. In this post I try to look at how disagreement is often connected to differences in how a person gathers and arranges knowledge, structures their thought, and communicates to others.

The following headings summarize my content:

  1. A method (intentional pattern) informs and guides the beliefs a person communicates.
  2. Thinking consistently requires patience, examination, and reflection.
  3. Scrutinizing existing beliefs is possible through critical thinking, receiving outsider feedback, all of which help identify biases, blindspots, and provide clarification.
  4. Identifying roots of disagreement that operate at a fundamental levels can improve dialogue and guard against acrimonious debates. 

Unless you’ve written or read a dissertation, or a technical academic work, identifying a “method,” or explaining one’s “methodology,” may sound unfamiliar. Methodology is essentially a structure used to build an extended argument—usually called a thesis. The first chapter of a book typically provides the substance of an author’s methodology. In other cases, a methodology is implied—readers know the basic contours of what he or she believes, and have an idea of the direction they will take. 

A writer’s method can be deeply philosophical, though it doesn’t have to be. The intention is simply to provide a kind of  “thinking map” by which outsiders can evaluate and judge claims a person has made. In earlier times, only individuals with educational or cultural credentials were allowed to disseminate views for public consumption. On one extreme, an elite few could publish ideas in, for example, the Middle Ages, where church and state were intellectual gatekeepers. This changed with the invention of Gutenberg’s movable type (ca. 1450), though not right away. Presently, the pendulum has swung to where, for better or worse, anyone can communicate their message to a potential audience of literally billions. Content may be profoundly persuasive—even if it proves false. A unique challenge to producers and consumers alike is to first recognize that each person has a methodology, and second, scrutinize and evaluate it. The question at hand is to discover why we think the way we do and reach conclusions that can radically diverge from people close to us.  Resistance or compliance to wearing masks during COVID is one just contemporary example of divergence. 

Thinking Consistently 

My doctoral supervisor, Chris Chun, gave a gem of an insight when he said: “You don’t really know what you think until you write.” We naturally absorb information that coalesces into a worldview of some kind, and have assumptions (presuppositions) about what is real. These starting points either cannot be reduced further, and/or an author has chosen them to anchor the ideas and arguments he or she makes. Christian theologians often begin with the Trinity as the basis from which all theological reflection flows. The empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) began with the assumption that knowing the physical world by sense experience was the firmest foundation to gain true knowledge. For this reason, Hume doubted the possibility of miracles on principle, not fact. His method categorically excluded supernatural phenomena. 

It is a truism that your starting point will, in large part, affect your destination. Whether you realize or acknowledge the fact, you have a method that unless challenged, has in all probability, never required reflection or examination. Even if you have difficulty identifying logical fallacies in someone’s arguments, you have likely noticed inconsistencies. Eagerness to point out discrepancies in others should humbly lead us to examine our own. 

The Challenge of Scrutiny

Most people don’t know what they think. Social media in particular has become a venue where content is essentially a stream of consciousness driven by passion, partisanship, and algorithmic suggestion. People fail to reflect because they are not compelled to do so. When someone criticizes a post, it’s not uncommon to react by attacking one’s personal character. If an unwelcome comment is made, it’s possible to erase the comment or block the person who wrote it.

Some helpful advice is to resist the urge to search for articles that buttress existing beliefs. This is not to deny a preference for news, the reality of bias, nor pretend one can attain absolute objectivity. Rather, guard against the reflexive tendency to pronounce swift judgement or approval. Reality is usually complex. 

Consider trying the following:: 

  1. Articulate and support a particular position. 
  2. Identify the points of disagreement with others—the content and form of their arguments.
  3. Share this content with someone who will offer constructive criticism.

This may sound familiar. Undergrad English and/or a critical thinking course require similar assignments. A majority of our country could use a refresher. The rub is, of course, that this involves intellectual work, patience, and a moderately thick skin. Give it a try. Write an essay, send it to a friend, and ask for honest feedback.

Of the present dangers wrought by smartphones is the dramatic shortening of our attention spans to atomistic fragments that threaten to render us unable to reflect on anything. Byron Reeves, professor of communication at Stanford University, analyzed data on screen time from smartphone users and concluded that for the five-hour average duration spent on the phone, there were 300 discrete sessions. That translates to an average of only 10–15 seconds per session! 

Identifying the Root of Disagreement

Among the most important books of the last decade is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Haidt, a moral psychologist at New York University explains that conservatives and liberals disagree with one another because they use the same terms (justice, fairness etc.) but have different definitions of what those terms mean. Furthermore, conservatives have an additional set of values (sanctity, loyalty, authority) that liberals do not. Haidt isn’t concerned with taking sides, he simply makes an observation, and though he is a “classic” liberal and an atheist, his advice is very much in line with biblical wisdom: openness to listen to “the other” is the only hope for a free society. As we read in Proverbs 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”  

If you labor to identify, even partially, your own method, you will see more clearly why you disagree with others and whether or not debating with them is fruitful. The ability to say not only “I disagree with you,” but “I disagree with you because of X and Y” is a noble goal and a step in the right direction, though you’ll need more than 10–15 seconds to achieve it. 

To summarize,

Patterns by which a person takes in information, organizes and structures their thoughts, and communicates messages to others is their method.

Inconsistency is a common mistake, easy to detect in others, difficult to detect in one’s self.

Scrutiny by means of self-reflection, openness to the criticism, and the feedback of an outsider can improve one’s method and even produce a new perspective. 

Disagreement can often be distilled to differences over beliefs that occupy a fundamental place in a person’s worldview. These may or not change. If they do, it likely will not happen overnight. 

 

 

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