My good friends Royal Winchester, Rob Lefferts and I like to talk about things. Eventually we realized there were some things, mostly political, we were afraid to talk about since they’re often polarizing topics that make everyone involved hate each other. Since we like each other, we wanted to avoid that. By going meta, which we are fond of doing, we came up with the following rules, which can help friends talk about contentious issues with each other:
- We have bad data. Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to find one piece of data that supports something we already believe and then stop looking. We say “I studied this thoroughly”, when really all we did was find one supporting source, something the web makes possible for any claim or belief. This bias even influences the sources we pick for news and the articles we choose to read, making us blind to the diversity of opinions and data out there. Objectively, we know we don’t know everything, but we easily convince ourselves we’ve been objective when arguing. Everyone should admit they don’t have all the data, and the data they do have is biased because they had a belief before they started looking for data.
- We don’t really care – if we did, we’d do something more than argue. Most Americans do almost nothing to support the causes they are willing to argue with for hours with their friends. If you really feel so passionately about whatever this topic is, what are you doing for that cause? If you do little or nothing, step down from your high horse, please. If we really cared, we could at least agree to invest the time to read the other sides data, and then get together to review. That takes commitment, but if there is no commitment, why are we arguing so passionately?
- We’re arguing about being right. Often with friends there is more ego in the room than people admit. Once things get heated, no one wants to say “I’m wrong” or “That’s a good point” or “Maybe I need to rethink my position”. If you note from the beginning that everyone wants to be right, it helps diffuse that motive, increasing the possibility people might actually listen to each other. A truly wise person is capable of growing. They can incorporate new ideas into their thinking and change their mind. Wise people are more interesting to talk to, compared to people who endlessly, and thoughtlessly, defend the same position their entire life.
- There are smart people on both sides. For highly contentious issues (abortion, religion, taxes, war,etc.), there are smart people on both sides. To portray one point of view as obvious is denial, and to make ad-hominem attacks on people with opposing views denies the complexity of the issue involved. Smart people can be wrong of course, but that doesn’t mean the way they’re wrong is as trivial to avoid as you assume, or that their ethics and morals are less noble than yours.
- What would convince you that you are wrong? If you have no answer to this question, you haven’t thought very hard about your position. There must be some set of new facts or conditions in the world that would make you take a different point of view, even if they are unlikely or improbable. It’s not much fun to talk to people who have complete certainty that they’re right about everything.
What do you think? We eventually came up with a version 2.