comfortable partial truths

scales uneven

I get frustrated with myself sometimes when I shrink from advocating passionately for contentious issues. People I respect write fiercely provocative essays, attend rallies or pepper their social media streams with political, religious or social ideologies. And I hold back. My defence is usually, ‘It’s not that simple’, or ‘Of course you’d say X because you’ve never seriously seen the world from the perspective of people who experienced Y.’

When I was a Uni student I sat listening to a talk by a Dr Ian John. I wrote about that talk, the first time I’d come across the idea of a paradigm in this post four years ago. More recently, I came across this quote by Clay Johnson, American technologist and political campaigner.

“Who wants to hear the truth when you can hear that you are right.”

Over the years I’ve come to see that we tend to believe the things that ‘significant others’ in our lives believe. Or, in other words, we identify with a community and adopt the belief system of that community. Of course we tell ourselves we have thought rationally about our beliefs, but we usually read apologetic material from people we already believe are ‘right’.

Twice in the last month I’ve flicked through a newspaper and been genuinely shocked by the editorial pieces on climate change. Recently a full page article was mockingly pointing out that the ‘climate was refusing to rise’. If you read the Herald Sun that day, then chances are you might not have watched the ABC News the night before, during which an item discussed the records showing that 2015 had been the hottest year ever recorded. Hmmm.

In a business context we are typically pretty poor at debate too. I think it is because we hold our views too close to our professional identities. Somehow, being persuaded by a better argument is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, what often happens is the strongest personality wins. In his excellent little books Death by Meeting and The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni goes as far as to say that unless there is conflict and debate in meetings where important issues are on the table, they are a waste of time.

So, seeking out alternative views, although uncomfortable, will strengthen our thinking incredibly. If an important issue is gaining momentum I believe it is an important role of thought leaders to appreciate alternative views. For example, if you find yourself agreeing with the increasingly mainstream arguments for euthanasia, then do what I did and seek out a robust alternative perspective. (Karen Hitchcock’s piece in the Monthly makes a strong case against the prevailing wisdom.)

There is nothing wrong with identifying with a community and telling each other stories that affirm our worldview. In fact, it a great thing, belonging and shared meaning. There is something unhealthy though, about so filtering our mental diet that we believe that everyone who believes something different is either stupid or evil. If you want to seriously understand the dynamics of why smart people end up being divided on important issues, I highly recommend Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. If you haven’t got the time or headspace for that, and you think euthanasia is a no brainer and anyone who thinks otherwise belongs in the past, then just read Hitchcock (above).

I am still learning on this, but increasingly I find myself asking, not whether a particular view is right or wrong, but rather, ‘what are the values that either consciously or unconsciously lead to that perspective?’ Or, put another way, focus less on ‘what I think is right’, and more on ‘why I think what I think, and why others think what they think.’

If we believe what we believe because of our experience, then it follows that the only way to know whether our beliefs hold up to even our own scrutiny, is to expose ourselves to alternative perspectives and experiences – let them go. If our convictions come back to us we will hold them very differently than if we’d never let them go in the first place.