February 9, 2017

Discussing Ideas vs. Discussing People

great minds discuss ideasOf all the quotes I see floating around on the Internet these days, the one pictured here would have to be one of my favorites. Although it has often been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, it was attributed to others before then 1987. Regardless of who expressed the sentiment first or who said it best, I've always been fond of it. In fact, I've recently considered buying a version of it to put on my wall so that I would see it whenever I am sitting in front of my desktop computer, which is where I do most of my writing these days. The notion that we should be focusing more on ideas than the people behind them is an important one and certainly one of which I could stand to be reminded more often.

To be clear, I would never claim that the source of an idea is irrelevant. I can think of circumstances where the source would be very relevant and where it might be truly difficult to separate an idea from its source. Perhaps the best example of this would involve a source who had repeatedly behaved in an appalling manner. In such a case, most of us would have some difficulty stripping the ideas expressed by the source evaluating them without being influenced by one's opinions of the source.

Ready for a dramatic and entertaining example? As you may or may not recall, Milo Yiannopoulos, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Steven Crowder made an appearance at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as part of a forum and discussion on free speech and the state of political correctness on university campuses in the U.S. Not surprisingly, they were greeted by protestors who attempted to shout them down during their presentation (i.e., loud heckling to prevent them from speaking and prevent others in attendance from being able to hear them speak). One of the protestors behaved so poorly that she quickly became Internet famous when a hashtag mocking her (#TrigglyPuff) briefly trended on Twitter and the video of her behavior in the audience at this event went viral. At this point, it is genuinely difficult - though not necessarily impossible - to evaluate the ideas she was attempting to express without being influenced by one's impressions of her and her behavior.

Even though I acknowledge that it can sometimes be difficult to separate ideas from their source, I do believe it is important that we make a sincere effort to critically evaluate ideas without becoming bogged down in whatever emotional reactions we may have toward their source. Thus, I am unwilling to close the door on the possibility that Donald Trump might have some good ideas simply because I do not agree with him on most matters of importance. Similarly, I am unwilling to accept ideas uncritically because I am positively predisposed toward their source. It does not matter how much I might value the work of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and other prominent atheists; each of them has expressed ideas with which I disagree.

As I have delved deeper into freethought, I have come to realize that good ideas can sometimes be found amidst bad ones and can sometimes come from unexpected sources. This has made me more determined than ever to expose myself to sources with whom I am likely to disagree. And yes, this has included some self-described conservative Christians (e.g., Steven Crowder). Similarly, it is clear to me that people I respect and admire can (and do) give voice to some truly bad ideas from time to time. This has made me more determined than ever to critically evaluate these ideas, often adopting a more critical stance when the source of the idea is someone I generally favor.

For me, this is a big part of what freethought entails. I seek to judge ideas on their merit rather than their source. And while I cannot pretend that my impressions of ideas are never influenced by my feelings about their source, I do make an effort to keep my focus on the ideas rather than the specific people behind them.

Many of us like to complain about our polarized political system or the tribalism we encounter on social media. I have certainly done my share of complaining. We say that we wish others would be more reasonable, slower to outrage, and would focus more on ideas than people. But the bottom line is that none of us can control what others do. I can control what I do and how I respond to what others do, but that is about it. And so, if I am serious about wanting to reduce polarization, tribalism, and conflict, I have to begin with me. I have to examine the ways I am contributing to - or at least participating in - an atmosphere I claim I do not like. For me, this means reminding myself that discussing ideas is usually preferable to discussing the people behind them.
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