When I look around at the state of public discourse in ‘the West’ what strikes me is that everyone says they want to have a reasoned and rational debate but say that the reason it doesn’t happen is because the ‘other side’ is irrational and so they can’t be debated with. The ‘other side’, their opponents say, always avoids the debate, is never willing to just answer a reasonable question and generally just refuse to have the debate they claim to want. Does this resonate with you?
I see impasse everywhere I look. In the UK between Brexit and Remain supporters and in the USA between Trump and Non-Trump supporters. I see it between Alt-right advocates and Progressives, and between all the various groups within and around identity politics and those they see as their enemies. I see it in every discussion of immigration. I see it between globalists and those they call populists or nativists.
How is this possible? How can all sides in every debate want to have a reasoned and rational discussion and yet all claim the ‘other side’ is irrational and unwilling to discuss?
Here are some thoughts.
It seems to me that in every one of our contentious social and political debates each ‘side’ comes to the debate with a set of assumptions which they are absolutely sure are the correct and in fact only way of framing the debate. The problem with me suggesting this, is that the people I am talking about will read that sentence and nod happily, feeling quite certain that this is a correct and lamentably true description of people other than themselves. Their own assumptions, if they are aware of having them at all, seem to them to be so basic, so self evident, that it would be wrong to describe them as ‘assumptions’. Sure, other people may have deeply embedded assumptions, but what ‘we’ have is a clear-eyed and unbiased statement of reality.
Sometimes the assumptions which provide the framework for every other thought, statement and debate, are held, I think, almost unconsciously. If you grow up in a fundamentalist religious culture then Allah, or Jehovah or Christ and his rules are unquestioned and held as unquestionable.
Such assumptions are then nearly always buttressed by an accompanying belief that questioning or denying these most unquestionable assumptions and the version of reality they describe, will lead to utter disaster. In the religious case because god will get peeved and visit some sort of divine anger upon the heads of the unbelievers and possibly even those around them who did nothing to stop the blaspheming.
So far so smug.
But the same logic is there in lots of more secular or ‘rational’ people. For some Capitalism and the workings of the Free Market are so basic, so much just a reflection into human affairs, of the basic nature of reality, that to go against them is ‘irrational’. On the other side there are those for whom a more communist view of human relations seems equally undeniable. Both sides usually claim their view is the only conclusion you can rationally come to if you start from an unbiased and scientific view of human nature. Both exaggerate.
An important part of the fierceness with which people defend their assumptions is often, I think, that they work through what their assumptions lead to and like what they see. But when they look at what ‘the other side’ espouses and put those things into their own framework of assumptions they find it leads to all sorts of things they find deplorable. The key thing is they always use their own framework of assumptions to evaluate what the other side’s beliefs ‘must lead to’. Never the assumptions the other side uses. Each side says to the other – you believe this and that means you must also believe… or that you must be a… . Very often the word fascist comes in to the shouting match at this point.
My view is that everyone comes to the debate wearing mental glasses which show them what they take to be ‘reality’ but which is in fact, a construction, created by the glasses they may be unaware they are even wearing.
My view is that this means everyone comes to the debate with a framework which includes what they are absolutely sure the ‘other side’ must think. Why? Well, if you have a framework of assumptions which tells you what the correct answer is then that same framework of assumptions will also tell you what the wrong answers are. It will tell you what the ‘other’ side, the wrong side of the debate thinks. You will ‘know’ before they open their mouths what they are going to say – more or less – because you are a rational thinking person who has ‘thought it through’. The problem is, the ‘it’ you thought through, which you attribute to the ‘other side’, is what your set of assumptions say the other side must think.
You hear what the other side’s opinion is, find that opinion within the framework of your own thinking and then look at the train of thoughts that – if they were using your assumptions, they must have gone through to get to their conclusion. And you also look around at the other thoughts that – in your logic – would go along with or be a consequence of their expressed view. And you then accuse the other side of those further ideas. Along the lines of – ‘Well if you say that then you must be in favour of…. You must be a ….!'
How many times in a contentious debate do both sides get really angry because they say – with some justification – that the other side is putting words in their mouth and are making assumptions about what they think or believe? Both sides claim the other is doing this and both get angry at the way the other side ‘distorts’ things and doesn’t listen. And both sides then reply, “No we’re not. We’re just showing anyone listening what you ‘really think’ but don’t like to say out loud.”
What I see, is both sides wanting to control how the debate is to be framed. And both sides feel this is legit because they ‘know’ their view is the rational and clear one. The other side is blinded by assumptions.
All sides say they want a rational and reasoned debate but both sides come to the debate assuming that their way of framing the debate, their set of assumptions, are the correct, rational and in fact the only legitimate ones. Each side comes with its assumptions and expects, demands, the other side to fit into them …not because they are bullies or irrrational – heaven forfend – but because their’s is the right framework. And to disagree is, by definition, to be irrational.
The only problem is the other side doesn’t see the world the same way. The two sides aren’t starting with an agreed set of assumptions. So each side sees the other as irrational and obstructive. Each side begins by asking a question or making a statement which seems to them to be the correct, legitimate and clear-eyed way of proceeding only to find the other side refusing to go along with the programme. Refusing to answer the questions or trying to avoid it by asking a totally different question. Each side sees the other being obstructive. And each side says of the other side, “Either they’re stupid or they’re doing this because they know they are wrong and would lose!”
And in truth both are correct. For good reason. If you do accept the starting assumptions of the other side in this sort of polarised debate, then by definition you will lose. The logic the other side come with, already contains your beliefs, but in their mental framework ‘your’ beliefs are connected to all sorts of awful ideas. They can’t understand how you can’t see this. It’s so clear. Of course it is only clear because they are looking at it only from within the framework of their own assumptions.
Each side knows how easy it is to follow the logic which runs from their own assumptions to the ‘correct’ conclusion. And each side wonders how the other refuses to see this. It’s a short step from there to decide that perhaps the other side aren’t that stupid which means they must be malignly, knowingly, deplorably advocating a position they know is wrong.
The other side must be other irrational or evil. Or sometimes both. Et voila! Mutual hatred, intollerance and a strong sense of self-righteous superiority on all sides.
Everyone sincerely believes their assumptions are the correct starting point for any debate and insist the other side fit into the role which the starting assumptions have laid down for them. Which conveniently mean they – the other side – will soon see the error of their ways, lose the debate and come to see how stupid or misguided they have been. Not surprisingly people quickly sense this is what is in store for them if they continue to allow the debate to be framed by the other side’s assumptions. And so at some point, usually fairly early on, people start to not allow the other side to dictate the framework of the debate. At which point both sides then feel frustrated that the other side is ‘irrationally’ sabotaging the debate by avoiding perfectly good questions and insisting of other irrelevant, unconnected, distracting questions.
Sorry this is a lot of words to say what might be blazingly evident.
But I think we are going to have to begin to admit we have deeply held assumptions and step back from them far enough to talk about them. I believe the debate we need at this point has to be about our assumptions and the debate has to happen at this deeper level. We are going to have to be willing to listen to why other people have different assumptions. And not rule them as somehow illegitimate or unspeakable or deplorable. We need to do this so we can follow the logic of the other side to understand how they get to where they are, why they think that they think. Why they have the fears they do. We need to do this for their assumptions and for our own. And we need to allow them to do the same.
It is the opposite of de-platforming. It’s the other path from using emotive labels to shut people down.
I think there are people who really do not want others to debate and discuss. They don’t want people to come to a better understanding of each other. They want, instead, to keep very tight control over what can and can’t be said and can and can’t be debated. They want people to be angry at each other and to distrust each other. They want to divide people against each other while claiming to be ardent opponents of divisiveness. It’s a clever ploy. But a dangerous and I think an evil one.
Such people don’t want to ever be accused of shutting down debate. They want to be seen as the champions of debate – rational debate, but all the while managing to prevent it. And the way they do it is by insisting they do not have assumptions. Only the ‘other’ side does. The ‘good’ side has science or evidence or just the moral high ground as their platform. This is a profound danger. Everyone has assumptions. The essential thing is to admit it, and be willing to discuss them.
There are plenty of people who hold views I find deeply distasteful. But rather than refuse to debate or try to insist that any debate happen within assumptions I have laid down, I prefer to try to get at what logic has led them to their views. What assumptions do they start with and why? What are the fears or the hopes which their assumptions seem to them to provide good answers to?