More and more I distinguish two ways of stating things in conversation and debate.
1. Declaration: Statement of opinion as though of fact, "The world IS this way."
2. Exploration: Statement of opinion as hunch, bet, working hypothesis "I think the world is this way."
- We qualify exploratory talk with clear markers that we recognize our statements as just our opinions. ("I think," "I bet," "IMO" etc.)
- Declaration is curiosity-free, no next questions. Exploration signals curiosity: "And following from my hunch, I wonder about X, Y and Z."
- In modern culture, exploration is seen as the more virtuous, so declaration is often dressed up to seem like exploration: "Of course I'm open-minded, curious and virtuous. Still I do know the absolute truth." Exploration wasn't always seen as more virtuous, and in some circles today it is still seen as a sign of weakness or self interest, ("You doubt the truth?! You're a sellout").
- Is exploration, always a virtue? It can’t be. None of us can be curious about everything, so we’re bound to take some opinions on faith.
- Declaration can be merely shorthand for exploration ("Sorry I said it's true. Of course what I meant is that I think it's true.")
- In conversation we often escalate inadvertently toward declaration. If we get shorthand from someone ("This is true," instead of "I think this is true") we're likely to drop our qualifiers in response. As a result we fall into what I call Infallibility contests in which conversational partners digging in their heels as though they’re fighting over who has ultimate truth.
- To avoid infallibility contests, when conflicts arise, it’s best to be make our qualifiers explicit. If you state opinion as truth and encounter pushback, say, “Well yes, I can’t be sure it’s true, but it’s my bet.”
- Sometimes it’s unsafe to add such qualifiers. If conversational partners have begun digging in heels and you say, “My declaration was just my opinion” they might take it as confirmation that they’re right and you’re wrong. They won’t reciprocate in de-escalation saying, “And of course my declaration is just an opinion too.” Instead they’ll say “Aha, so you admit you don’t know!!”
- It’s best to send honest signals about where we’re not really curious. “It’s my bet and I’m not really interested in rethinking it at this time,” in other words, “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
- When we encounter someone’s lack of curiosity about something that we think they’ve gotten wrong, we tend to moralize about their lack of curiosity. We posture as though were universally open-minded and virtuous and they aren’t. “So, you’re not willing to reconsider your position? Really? You’re that closed minded? Shame on you.”
- Resist the tendency to deliver or respond to such shaming. Exploration is a limited virtue. Since no one is ready and able to rethink all of their opinions all of the time, we do not owe each other curiosity about everything or curiosity about what others are curious about. We do owe each other clear signals about what we’re willing to rethink.
- What then should you do when you think someone’s opinion is really wrong, and they either indicate honestly or demonstrate indirectly that they’re not receptive to exploring whether their opinion is valid?
- If you can, back out of the conversation. Change the subject, walk away, move on. Remember that the world is full of people who make assumptions at odds with yours. You can’t and don’t need to change everyone’s mind.
- I find that my impulse to keep arguing is often triggered by my subtle, unwarranted fear that they’ll change my mind. The clearer you are with yourself about what you believe and why, the less you have to worry about being influenced subtly by those who disagree with you, and the freer you are to live and let live without moralizing about other people’s un-receptivity, and honoring especially those who can be honest about their unwillingness to rethink things.
- But we can’t always just walk away from people who disagree with us. When you live with someone, making joint decisions that affect you both, live and let live is not an option.
- In a Democracy like our country aims to be, we all live with each other’s decisions. Debate is good for us to the extent we can stand it. It’s best therefore to err on the side of exploration.
And in case I haven’t been clear, all of the above is exploration for me still. I mean this article's title to be ironic. The points above are not surefire, but my work-in-progress hypothesis about how and when to think things through together.