Blind Adherence to Old-Fashioned Notions of Polite Society Makes us Dumb and Lazy

I have deep respect and admiration for the 2,500-year old Socratic Method for the hope it offers us. For those who do not recall learning about this in high school or college, let me provide a brief description of just what the Socratic Method is. The Socratic Method is a form of conversation in which a person asks another person a series of thoughtful questions to better understand the other person’s point of view. It is meant to stimulate critical thinking and challenge commonly held, but unanalyzed positions. The hope is that these types of thoughtful conversations lead to a better understanding of each other and an abandonment of ideas that are unsupported by logic.

The problem with the Socratic Method is that it runs afoul of two deeply engrained American principles. First, most of us have had at least one respected elder tell us, “It is rude to discuss politics or religion at/in [insert virtually any location].” Why? Presumably because the risk of hurting someone’s feelings is so great that two of the most important topics in one’s life should only be discussed in places where the speaker has reasonable assurances that everyone within earshot will agree with his belief system. And the second American principle that runs up against modern application of the Socratic Method is each American’s right to hold any opinion he or she likes. Many unfortunately abuse this right (as they are of course permitted to do), and use it as an excuse to subscribe to irrational beliefs that they forbid from ever being challenged.

The result of this American ethos is that we, as a society, have become very poor at discussing politics because we are discouraged from doing it nearly everywhere, and there is no discussion as to how to do it civilly or constructively. Most people keep their political beliefs to themselves unless speaking with likeminded individuals, and then reinforce those beliefs with a supportive media outlet. On that rare occasion when we are confronted by a differing ideology (say on Thanksgiving), a few things happen. First, we often lack the ability to defend our beliefs in a meaningful way because we have never taken the necessary time to learn about the complex issues on which we profess to be experts. Second, we take offense when anyone disagrees with our continuously reinforced, but perhaps baseless belief system. And third, we are devoid of the skills necessary to discuss these complex issues in a productive or civil manner, and discussions quickly turn to personal attacks and other forms of hostile and unproductive communications.

We all know how bad everyone is at discussing politics because we so often joke about how useless it is to discuss politics. There are various Facebook threads that highlight this point. They go something like this: “Thank you for your political posts. They have really opened my eyes and caused me to change my political philosophy – said no one ever.”

When you think about it though, shouldn’t conversations on public policy change our outlook? Look at it this way. There are literally hundreds of political issues out there. Most of them are incredibly complex and require not only a deep base of knowledge to understand, but also require daunting considerations of economics, cost-benefit analysis, constitutional rights, moral/ethical considerations, etc. Doesn’t it make sense that our opinions on such complex issues would constantly be changing, or at least tweaked, as we learn new information and hear different points of view? Of course it makes sense, but it rarely happens. Instead, all of our ideas seem inexplicably locked in.

My suggestion to fix this ideological gridlock that stunts any type of collective political growth is to drop the sacred-cow routine and embrace the Socratic Method. You believe the Bush tax cuts worked so well that we ought to extend them forever? Great, let’s talk about it. We have to agree, however, to get past the trite and inflammatory talking points—i.e., “Why are Republicans against the rich paying their fair share?” versus “Why do Democrats want to punish success?” Instead, let’s have a meaningful conversation about The Laffer Curve, correlations between tax cuts and economic growth, long-term debt projections, economic analyses of the tax cut proposal by the OMB, effect of tax cuts on human behavior, etc.

I have a handful of conservative friends who talk to me like this and it is refreshingly productive. No one is switching parties at the end of the conversation, but it is amazing how much we can find upon which we agree. Moreover, I love meeting someone who can educate me on issues. I have a couple of conservative friends in particular who are especially knowledgeable on public unions and gun control. Both have moved me on these issues because they had something to teach me, and I was open to adjusting my political beliefs based on new information. Too many of us fall into the pattern Stephen Colbert courageously told George W. Bush he fell into: “[You] believe the same thing Wednesday that [you] believed on Monday…no matter what happened Tuesday.”

Be open to new ideas and to defending your current ones. If this seems boorish or uncouth to you, get over yourself. If the idea of having to explain and defend your beliefs in a thoughtful manner makes you uneasy, perhaps your beliefs warrant reconsideration.

– Dylan


2 Responses to “Blind Adherence to Old-Fashioned Notions of Polite Society Makes us Dumb and Lazy”

  1. I put 51% of the blame on the two party system.

  2. In order for the Socratic Method to work, both parties have to be willing to learn. Too often, the person asking the questions is just badgering without any real interest in open discussion. Which is why I limit my political (and really, any idealogical) discussions to people who respect me enough to listen even when they think I’m wrong.

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