Opinion & Thought

Sophistry and the planting of seeds

After over five years of waiting, I’ve finally had a reasoned, informed discussion with a Brexiter. The specifics aren’t important, but it was perhaps significant that the individual (who is not known to me personally) also has a background in education and the exchange did take place on social media. The former provided a little shared ground – but as the discussion developed, it quickly became apparent just how limiting the practicalities of conducting complex debate by such means actually are.

This coincided neatly with both my finishing Tim Harford’s book How to Make the World Add Up and the final proof reading of my own book on Critical Thinking (now begins the hard search for a publisher…)

After several other recent encounters where my attempts to reason carefully with Brexiters ended in yet more mockery and abuse, my concern about the balkanisation of public opinion had not exactly subsided. Whatever our views, it really is not healthy if all we can do is close our ears and call each other nasty names in lieu of searching for an accommodating way forward.

The Sophists were thinkers and orators of ancient Greece. Over time, rhetoric and winning an argument came to dominate reaching the truth (I will leave aside here the deep difficulties within that word…). Sophistry is alive and well in modern society. It seems that our formal politics depend on it – especially in the system we have in the U.K. where the “winner takes all” – and achieving that winning position in both a general election and more widely seems more important than wise (let alone conciliatory) government itself. It hardly sets a good example to society at large… (With this tail well and truly wagging the dog, much of what passes for governance in this country is now, it seems to me, little more than collateral effects of the supremacy battle within the Westminster Bubble).

Social media also seem to thrive on sophistry, if only because they tap into a fundamental human competitiveness and boost it by removing the usual social conventions that might make one keep at least one ‘glove’ on when debating face to face. So often it seems that the real purpose of interaction is to win the argument, rather than find factual accuracy – let alone approach consensus or deeper understanding of another point of view. Maybe I am being hopelessly idealistic here, but it is still a great pity, since more mature use of social media has, I believe, huge potential to boost proper civic debate.

Both Harford’s book and the art of critical thinking in general can perhaps inform the way forward, and even guide our personal conduct and strategy.

It is all too easy to get sucked into sophistry oneself, when operating in a sphere that encourages it. Regularly reminding oneself that ‘winning’ the argument is neither likely nor necessary can help. The chances of fundamentally quashing another view to the point of abandonment are tiny, as is easily appreciated if one reflects on the difficulty one might encounter oneself in conceding the same. People rarely make fundamental changes to their positions except through profound personal experiences – and the chances of a discussion on social media being one are about nil. A little respect simply accepts that one’s opponent will be in the same position, and it is all the more unlikely if those positions really are the product of genuine thought and experience, rather than dogma.

In which case, shifting the objective towards a genuine exploration of the issues and contrasting perspectives is much more likely to be productive. How to do that? My own approach is hopefully to model good practice, for example by:

  • never using ad hominems;
  • always being prepared to look for compromise;
  • trying to find commonality and consensus where it does exist, even outside the debate itself;
  • understanding the difference between fact and interpretation or opinion;
  • trying to address opposing points rather than ignoring or rubbishing them;
  • conceding when one does not have a good answer;
  • maintaining politeness and good humour;
  • firmly asserting one’s credentials without bragging or demeaning the other person;
  • most importantly, explicitly (and if necessary, repeatedly) stating one’s aims and code for the discussion.

I won’t pretend that I always achieve all of this, particularly under fire but it is still, I think, a good aspiration. Sadly, sheer experience suggests that many people are so preconditioned that they can’t respond in kind – but that too does not diminish the aspiration. Retaining the moral high ground is probably still good advice.

In the recent experience, my interlocutor sadly began by dismissing my points and claiming (without any basis) that I had no experience in the subject matter and did not know what I was talking about. Privately, I knew this was ridiculous – but how to prove otherwise without appearing condescending? However, just for once, continued engagement did shift the argument onto more constructive ground and we proceeded to have detailed and lengthy interactions over several days, before agreeing to close it simply due to the practical constraints. It finished courteously.

What did it achieve? Tim Harford points out the importance of curiosity: curious people are more likely to engage with alternative views because their own are subject to modification, whereas the incurious will simply close their ears and blast away. Such flexibility at least makes it more possible to respect and respond to another position even if one does not agree with or adopt it. It also makes a shifting of positions towards greater tolerance or consensus just a little more likely. A recent feature in The Guardian, which has put opponents face to face over a meal has found something similar: given the right conditions, balkanised positions can be eroded and consensus or at least mutual respect found.

Harford suggests that when it comes to real sticking points, it can be better to ask people progressively to elaborate their understanding of their own position, rather than attempting to contradict them. If they cannot, then this self-realisation is more effective than anything one can say oneself. It does not necessarily mean that they will concede openly, of course. In other words, the key to a successful debate is to pay attention not to your own views, but to those of the other, no matter how much you disagree with them.

In the recent discussion, it became clear that the other person was (unsurprisingly) no more likely to shift wholesale to my point of view than I was to hers. I felt there were omissions and contradictions in her stance – ironic given her claim to authority, and precisely a criticism she levelled at mine. I did my best to respond accordingly, though I felt that fewer of my own points were directly addressed in return. When presented with a challenge, it can feel easier to shift the argument that address it – but it is a weaker and less persuasive response. I drew my own conclusions – privately.

It seemed as though we were seeing the world in through parallel lenses: broadly the same information interpreted in diametrically opposite ways, nothing profound enough to alter that fact.

Nonetheless, the discussion was civil; over time we found there were areas of agreement, and at the same time, I suspect some points were raised by either side that the other had not previously considered. If our interaction has any longer lasting effect, I suspect it will be incremental – and this is perhaps why we need to see such events as the ‘sowing of seeds’ that may just germinate given time and modify someone’s long term view. It works both ways, of course – and perhaps that is the final benefit: it is better to talk properly to our opponents than abuse them, give a little, learn a little and then part, disagreeing if necessary – but perhaps slightly the wiser.

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