Home > Politics > Friday post: the value of disagreement

Friday post: the value of disagreement

August 31, 2007

Anyone who’s been blogging longer than a year will tell you the best part of their blog is the comments from readers.  There is a good reason for this – nothing makes for a more interesting post than “a Democrat, a Republican, and a Libertarian walk into a bar…”  There are blogs where almost everyone is in full agreement but it isn’t very much fun – or much of a learning experience – watching them agree with each other and slap each other on the back.

Another reason this is true is that we sometimes get comments from people who are right in the middle of the issue or event.  That turns a news item into a personal story.  If you are surrounded by what’s happening, I really want to know what you think. 

Another thing: The most important reason: for years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that another person with different life experiences can look at an event or issue and see something completely different from what I see. Their opinion seems so counterintuitive to me, and mine to them.  Who is right?  Is there such a thing as an ideal perspective?

That is the reason why I really appreciate readers who disagree.  It is why I sometimes leave your comments in place for a day or two without responding; other readers can read my post, and the comment, and leave their own comments.  It is the reason I try to keep the name-calling and pigeon-holing to a minimum.  What’s the point of people yelling at each other?  I’d much rather give them space to explain why they think as they do. 

Even if you grant we have each come upon truths we consider important, is there nothing a former-Republican Democrat like me could learn from a Libertarian?  Or a Libertarian from a Green?  Is there no possible benefit in trying to understand – if only for a while – why a Christian or Muslim Fundamentalist feels as he does?

If we just enjoy shouting, fine; there are any number of talk shows for that.  It could be argued (and some do) that the attempt to understand and learn from others leads to paralysis of action.  This may not really be a bad thing, if the action being paralyzed is a harmful one.  And even if action has to go forward, wouldn’t we be better forewarned of pitfalls by insight from people who disagree with us?  Because… there may not be such a thing as an ideal perspective.

I’ve been thinking about Paul’s article, Conscious thought is symbolic; no more, no less.  It’s as good an explanation as any I’ve seen, and will do until a better one comes along.  Here’s a taste:

… Instead of saying that normal, everyday consciousness mirrors reality, it would be far more accurate to say that it maps reality. That is, the relationship of consciousness to reality is basically the same as the relationship of a map to its terrain…

There are different kinds of maps: topographical maps, gravity maps, political maps, geological maps, treasure maps, spectral-reflectivity maps, epidemiological maps, highway maps – and different uses for each one.  All are true in some respect, but none is The Truth. 

And whatever its purpose, a given map has limitations of accuracy.  How much ground does it cover, and at what level of detail?  Are there features the cartographer simply chose to ignore? (Perhaps because they’re secret, or politically inconvenient, or painful to remember, or the information was not available.  Or, for reasons they cannot really explain).

What if we could overlay all the different kinds of maps, one over the other?  Studying them, finding correlations between the different variables being mapped?  Can we do that politically, philosophically, interpersonally?  What could we discover?

Having an open mind should not equal being adrift.  There’s nothing wrong with looking at an idea, considering it, and soundly rejecting it.  I work pretty hard on being “right” – some may call me opinionated – but it should be a work-in-progress. I have changed my mind on some pretty big issues over the years.  In a few cases, it happened because someone I disagree with convinced me by a well-supported argument. Our opinions are a little sign on the map that says “You Are Here” – they shouldn’t be a cage from which we cannot escape.  I would hate to be imprisoned within the opinions I held 30 years ago.  And I hope to live a lot longer.

Categories: Politics
  1. Les
    August 31, 2007 at 12:40 | #1

    This is about that crack I made about Kucinich isn’t it…


  2. August 31, 2007 at 13:05 | #2

    This is a great post DOF and really you are absolutely right on this one.  Holding onto opinions and treating them as reality is not a good plan.  For it puts us in the position that, “I am right and there is nothing you can do to change my mind.”

    About a year or a year and a half ago I dropped a huge opinion I held onto for too long.  And for me I was able to rationalize the new ideas I found because I started getting more interested in science.  It wasn’t easy because it’s hard to admit you were wrong.  Especially when so many people heard your opinions.  You kind of play into the sunk cost fallacy that, you put in so much time and energy you have to keep going.  And you feel demoralized and you feel as though your pride was ripped from you and it’s just emotionally draining.

    Maybe that explains why many of us are afraid to let go of these ideas we hold onto.  They are afraid to go through what I did, which wasn’t easy to do by any means.  And so it’s just easier to believe in something no matter how much evidence would suggest otherwise.

    Which I think is why we need better science and math/logic education.  This will put people in a position where they can form better opinions, based on scientific reasoning.  This will also put people in a position where they are able to adapt to new information easier because the scientific method allows for such adaptation.

  3. james old guy
    September 1, 2007 at 09:05 | #3

    I have to agree with that, with a military background I do tend to lean towards more conservative views, but I don’t buy the whole conservative agenda. I retired over 10 years ago and a lot of my views have changes, but my point of view as you have stated is a lot different than a corn farmer in Indiana where I grew up. One of the reasons I read your blog, so that I can see what other views are even if I don’t agree with them.

  4. Ted
    September 1, 2007 at 17:33 | #4

    The map is not the territory. Alfred Korzybski

    I work pretty hard on being “right” – some may call me opinionated – but it should be a work-in-progress.

    A true traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving. The Tao.

  5. September 3, 2007 at 04:56 | #5

    Thanks for the link, DOF!  I think you beautifully develop a profound implication of the symbolic nature of thought: Namely that no one way of “mapping” reality can comprehend all truth, and that consequently, we need multiple opinions to even begin to approximate a comprehensive truth.

  6. September 3, 2007 at 21:07 | #6

    My latest conversations with those closest to me have had to do with the idea that <i>evil<> does not exist.  It is very foreign to my upbringing, and 20 years ago or so I would have dismissed the concept with disgust … 10 years ago with a harrumpf but a tiny pique of interest.

    So these conversations are essential to a life journey.  I have come to realize that when I react extremely strongly to someone else’s contrary view, it is likely a sign that one of my beliefs is being challenged in a way that is uncomfortable.

  7. Ted
    September 4, 2007 at 08:56 | #7

    From a link I posted earlier:

    Korzybski’s dictum (“The map is not the territory”) is also cited as an underlying principle used in neuro-linguistic programming, where it is used to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people’s beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the “map”) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (“the territory”).

    This is a fair explanation by a wikipedean. I pull it out to address DOF’s question:

    Because… there may not be such a thing as an ideal perspective.

    A lot of people get very uncomfortable when someone suggests that moral absolutes are not absolute but relative; to education, to culture, to opportunity, to conditions. Hence the frequent insults that go on about the intellectual poverty of relativism and post-modernism.

    But I think it depends on who a person is inclined to have as their philosophical hero. Plato or Aristotle. Or maybe Heraclitus.

  8. September 4, 2007 at 22:42 | #8

    Ages ago when I was an “absolutist”, I challenged a fellow student in a class (sociology? psychology?  can’t remember..) who was positing that truth is relative, that there were “no absolutes”.  My question was:

    “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?”  It got a good laugh then, and now I chuckle cuz I think I was cute but wrong.  But I’m not absolutely sure.

  9. September 5, 2007 at 06:32 | #9

    Accidentally unsubscribed, not much to add right now…

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