Talking about and discussing important matters with our friends, acquaintances, social networks etc. has the potential to widen our understanding. But a recent online interaction once again made me ask a question I have often wondered about, why are so many of us so quick to take things personally in a discussion? Even if the discussion is about, say, a national level economic policy or a cultural matter concerning some old custom or convention. Since such matters impact all of us in different ways, it is natural that as reasonably educated citizens we would wish to understand the various aspects of such policies and practices.
How we go about this process of understanding, that’s what makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media and also a big chunk of the social media are now reduced to propaganda machines. And one has to filter through a lot of uninformed opinion and ideological posturing to get to some nuggets of facts about a certain policy decision or proposal.
When it comes to topics concerning cultural practices and conventions, much more serious study is necessary. Before forming an opinion, one must know something about why a certain practice came into being, what might have been the original intention or deeper symbolism behind a certain outer practice or custom, what factors during a certain time and in a certain socio-cultural context might have led to certain practices, whether the practices have undergone any changes over time, what purpose these practices served at a certain time, in what ways these customs or practices may still be relevant or not, how do cultural practices evolve and shift over time, etc etc.
In the absence of such background information and understanding, we are not prepared to discuss anything related to such topics. But of course, in the fast-paced virtual world of instant-opinion-forming-and-sharing such absence of knowledge doesn’t stop people from engaging in arguments and discussions on many sensitive topics.
In addition to doing our background homework on a particular topic it is equally important that we learn a thing or two about discussing things. At least learn how to engage in a discussion a bit more impersonally, a bit more logically and rationally.
I doubt if we really understand what it means to discuss meaningfully. Maybe we have simply mindlessly followed the motto of ‘personal is political’ and as a result have mastered the art of reducing every discussion to a personal or ideological battlefield of sort.
In a rational discussion, shouldn’t we be able to consider an argument being presented without any bias or opinion regarding the person presenting the argument? For instance, why is it so quickly assumed that the person presenting an argument is saying so because he or she must necessarily completely ‘buy’ into the truth-value of that argument? Why is it not assumed that the person may be presenting an argument simply because it offers an alternative or a contrarian view or a view that is perhaps so far missing from the ongoing discussion?
Also, why is it so quickly assumed that this contrarian or alternative view is being presented to put down ‘my’ stated view or position on the topic? From where does this incessant hold of ‘my view’ come in a discussion? Can we not separate the personal from the topic being discussed? Should we not separate the two?
An honest self-disclosure.
I am often not a good discussant when interacting face-to-face with people, especially with people I have known for a long time and with whom I can let my guard down. I find my ‘person’ coming in too quickly, especially when discussing some topics, and it sometimes becomes easy to lose an objective view of the topic. I sometimes begin to take things personally, resulting in some unnecessarily heated exchange of viewpoints. But since such discussions generally happen within the confines of home or home-like environment with people whom I am comfortable with and/or to whom I am personally related in some capacity, things also cool down just as quickly and the conversation moves on to more amicable topics.
Let me also admit that I am a much better discussant —a lot more objective, calm and often (not always) personally removed from the topic —when it comes to written exchange of ideas and viewpoints. Perhaps that is because the very act of writing creates a kind of ‘stepping back’ situation where I am forced to draw out an argument more from a rational part of my mind than a mere reactive one. This stepping back helps create a necessary distance between the most immediate, habitual reaction of the mechanical mind and a more objective, rationally considered response of the logical mind.
It is this personal experience that makes me then wonder — shouldn’t our formal educational experience help us develop this habit of healthy discussion, without bringing our reactive mentality into the picture? Sure, we find a practice of classroom discussions that some teachers encourage, but more often than not these are just in name. For the most part there isn’t really a meaningful environment to encourage deep discussion of ideas and a thorough exchange of perspectives for growing minds to learn and practice the art and skill of healthy discussion.
A good mental training must include the training of mind to: a) engage with diverse viewpoints, b) analyse each viewpoint for its merit and value, c) determine its validity and credibility within the scope of the given topic under consideration, d) evaluate its effectiveness and worthiness for widening the present understanding of the topic, and e) synthesize the diverse viewpoints for greater clarification of the topic.
This last point of synthesis of diverse viewpoints is important, rather it should perhaps be the goal of all meaningful and healthy discussion. Otherwise why engage in a meaningless mental gymnastic when we miss out on the goal of arriving at a greater clarification on a particular topic or phenomenon?
There is a whole lot more to a good mental training, including the recognition and acceptance that a discussion, no matter how rational and reasonable, no matter how objective and calm, is not in its essence a truth-finding exercise. At best it is a means to explore the multi-dimensional and multi-perspectival nature of a phenomenon. The real truth is generally behind and beyond the outer phenomenon, is not only multi-dimensional but also transcends the multiple dimensions of constructed mental understanding of the phenomenon.
And yet, the social imperative of a mutually respectful and harmonious co-existence necessitates that we learn to engage with diverse viewpoints in a reasonably objective manner. Of course, taken to its extreme such an argument may be used to justify entertaining even the most barbaric or inhumane viewpoint in the name of some ubiquitous value like freedom of speech. But that would be an absurd and illogical conclusion not worthy of attention.
What is truly worthy of our attention is to figure out whether we need to brush up on our discussion skills. I am sharing below a few pointers I often try to recall and seek inspiration from. Not that I always remember to practice these when I am in the middle of a heated discussion, but the awareness that I am not practicing these gives me the much-needed mental space to ‘step back’ and catch myself. Hence this post — as another reminder to myself.
(1) Not to allow the impulse of speech to assert itself too much or say anything without reflection, but to speak always with a conscious control and only what is necessary and helpful.
(2) To avoid all debate, dispute or too animated discussion and simply say what has to be said and leave it there. There should also be no insistence that you are right and the others wrong, but what is said should only be thrown in as a contribution to the consideration of the truth of the matter.
(3) To keep the tone of speech and the wording very quiet and calm and uninsistent.
(4) Not to mind at all if others are heated and dispute, but remain quiet and undisturbed and yourself speak only what can help things to be smooth again.
(5) If there is gossip about others and harsh criticism…, not to join—for these things are helpful in no way and only lower the consciousness from its higher level.
(6) To avoid all that would hurt or wound others.
~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – IV, CWSA Vol. 31, p. 87
Question: What is the use of discussions? What is the best way to make other people understand what one feels to be true?
The Mother: In general, those who like to discuss things are those who need the stimulant of contradiction to clarify their ideas.
It is obviously the sign of an elementary intellectual stage.
But if you can “attend” a discussion as an impartial spectator—even while you are taking part in it and while the other person is talking with you—you can always benefit from this opportunity to consider a question or a problem from several points of view; and by attempting to reconcile opposite views, you can widen your ideas and rise to a more comprehensive synthesis.
As for the best way of proving to others what one feels to be true, one must live it—there is no other way.
Question: How is it that we lose a chance to widen our knowledge by prevailing in a debate?
A debate is never anything but a conflict of opinions; and opinions are nothing but very fragmentary aspects of the truth. Even if you were able to put together and synthesise all opinions on a given subject, you still would not achieve anything but a very imperfect expression of the truth.
If you prevail in a debate, it means that your opinion has prevailed over the opinion of another, not necessarily because yours was truer than his, but because you were better at wielding the arguments or because you were a more stubborn debater. And you come out of the discussion convinced that you are right in what you assert; and so you lose a chance to see a view of the question other than your own and to add an aspect of the truth to the one or the ones you already possess. You remain imprisoned in your own thought and refuse to widen it.
~ The Mother, On Thoughts and Aphorisms, CWM Vol. 10, pp. 85-86.