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Friday, April 4, 2014

Talking About Ideas with Friends: Lessons from Graham Greene

A Spanish priest and a Marxist mayor walk into a bar . . . and teach you a lesson in civil discourse.

Graham Greene's novel Monsignor Quixote is filled with lessons about how to share your worldview with people who have a different outlook. The main characters treat their opposing views as a model for addressing difficult questions directed at your own ideas and applying the same intellectual rigor on the views of others.

Graham Greene was a popular twentieth century author whose writings often dealt with the moral conflicts of his characters set among political conflicts, and Monsignor Quixote fits this mold. The story follows a Spanish priest, Quixote, and the recently ousted communist mayor of his town (appropriately nicknamed Sancho), as they travel the countryside of post-dictatorship Spain. The setting offers exploration between the priest and the mayor by morality and politics. Indeed, the heart of the novel is their exploration of each other’s ideas.

Getting a chance to honestly discuss ideas with a friend with a different viewpoint is an experience requiring rhetorical skills inappropriate for other kinds of discourse. For instance, your goal in a public debate is to persuade your audience using the strongest and most thorough argument you possess. Even in a discussion with the same person sharing the same ideas, your comments in a debate would be much different from those in a private conversation. These conversations are about explaining your views and considering your friend's.

Dialogue like this is tough because we care about our views—they fill us with meaning and help us understand ourselves and the world around us. Likewise, our views color our understanding of opposing worldviews, giving us good impressions of some ideas and creating disgust with others.

But those discussions with friends are important. You get asked tough questions and ask tough questions, and you attempt to show the truth of your views. The goal, however, is not to embarrass or contradict. It's about getting to know something both familiar and foreign. It’s familiar because you know the person and have some understanding of their outlook. And it’s foreign because you are exploring ideas that are not your own.

Monsignor Quixote gives a number of lessons to get the most out of those instances.

There's a Difference Between Contradiction and Inconsistency

“Mockery is not an argument, Sancho.”

If you've ever seen political commentary on Facebook, you probably have recognized how much of what passes for political discourse is mockery disguised as argument. Especially popular is mocking by pointing out a contradiction.

For instance, an antiabortion bill was introduced by a generally market-friendly politician and a friend posts that it was “brought to you by the 'Less Government' people.” No one likes intellectual contradiction, so this is a generally effective technique to point out publicly to solidify support for your thought.

True contradiction, however, is rare. What is mostly pointed out is seeming inconsistency. Inconsistency is a contradiction that exists only in the mind of the person who observes it. There is often an easy explanation that shows that this seeming inconsistency derives from a consistent worldview. It's only when looked at from a different point of view that it appears to be a contradiction. This is a fault of the person raising the objection rather than a fault of the person for whom the objection is raised. Thus, pointing out a problem that is easily explainable is unconvincing.

I asked my friend about his post to see if he could think of why opposition to abortion could be consistent with limited government views. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so. (He gave a good-faith effort, though, and I appreciated that.)

I'm not sure whether my friend is a rare case or not. If you're too attached to your ideas, you may not understand the context or nuance that explains away what you thought was a contradiction. We view the world differently from our opposition and the important things to him may seem quaint, silly, stupid, or even hurtful to others.

We like to point out contradictions and inconsistencies because they're often both fun and pointed. In the rare conversation with a friend on ideas, feel free to challenge him when you believe you've found the argument that shows his errors. Or even pokes fun at his ideas. But be aware that he may have a perfectly rational explanation to the point you make.

There's no need to avoid humor in deep conversations. Just know that you're dealing with issues that cut to the heart of how a person understands themselves and the world around them.

While these seeming inconsistencies may be funny, you should use them only with caution. As Monsignor Quixote tells Sancho, “I don't like to offend anyone who takes a thing seriously. Laughter is not an argument. It can be a stupid abuse.”

Stay Away from Stereotyping

“Why are you always saddling me with my ancestor?”

In the novel, Sancho often attributes ideas to his friend based upon his namesake, Don Quixote, treating it as a game to try to predict how Quixote would interpret their situations. It sometimes works because both Quixotes view the world as an unfolding epic. But the priest eventually gets frustrated with the endeavor.

Just because you know something about your friend's views doesn't make you an expert in their opinions.

You know something about the ideas your friend holds. You've heard about it and even likely know why you don't buy into those ideas. You probably have a rudimentary understanding of some of the basic precepts, viewpoints, and main arguments of the outlook. Still, your understanding will be less than that of an expert. So ask questions and share your concerns. And listen to the response.

Likewise, don't lump your friend in with everyone who holds a similar position. If your friend considers eating fast food a moral shortcoming, it doesn't make them a nanny-state totalitarian. He might be. But assuming he holds the views of everyone else that has similar sentiment does not do your friend justice.

It's easy to mistake labels in politics, such as conservative or liberal or even feminist. We like labels since they can make discourse simpler and quicker to understand. Yet there remain nuances between people who adopt the same label. The environmentalists at the Property and Environment Research Center are committed to free market environmental protections that the environmentalists at the Michigan Environmental Council could not care less about. Knowing the differences is essential to a consistent outlook, and labels can lack the context of a master practitioner.

The use of labels as shortcuts also becomes challenging in private conversation because people identify with multiple labels.

You can score a cheap shot by pointing out an extreme view that seems untenable to a reasonable person. But that may not be the essential problem that you identify. As the joke (which I read in Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism) goes: “You libertarians are the types that would allow fornication in public parks!” which prompts the response: “What do you mean, public parks?”

Or as S. I. Hayakawa put it, “To a mouse, cheese is cheese. That's why mousetraps work.” Don't get snared by mistaking your understanding of the ideas with your opponent’s understanding of the ideas.

Exchange Literature

“In return for Father Jone I will lend you Father Lenin.”

You do not need to solve all the world's problems in one night, nor are you likely to completely persuade your friend of the truth of your views instantly. You should lend them a book and offer to read one of their recommendations. In the novel, Sancho reads a book of Roman Catholic moral theology while Quixote reads The Communist Manifesto.

Convincing your friend that reasonable people can have different views is a big first step. It's an even larger step to convince your friend that other views can be defended. Thankfully, there exists classic literature reflecting your own ideas that have won converts, shed fundamental insights, and changed the minds of thousands.

There's no substitute for the basics or the insights of the masters of your worldview. Committing your time and energy to understand your friend’s point of view is also a sign of good faith. Committing yourself to understanding your friend’s point of view should build trust for him to extend the same courtesy, especially when you take time and effort to go through the literature underpinning a worldview.

But be careful: The book that you select should keep the same tone that you've set with your conversations. Not all the important works that share your understanding explore their findings with good-faith argumentation. Rand loved to mock. Mises was merciless. Disdain for your friend's ideas is a quick way for him to lose respect for your ideas.

Nor do your works have to explore all of the issues. There are excellent, targeted arguments on smaller issues.

Address the Positives of the Opposite Literature and Respectfully Note Your Concerns

“It's the work of a good man. A man as good as you are—and just as mistaken.”

When you practice goodwill, there's a positive thing you can say about most anything. Take that approach when addressing your friend's suggested literature. Disregarding his ideas is a quick excuse for him to reciprocate. Extending goodwill, however, does not mean that you have to accept the views of the person, just that you address the text respectfully.

The novel gives an excellent example of goodwill compliments and criticism. After reading The Communist Manifesto, Quixote connects Marx's lament for the older, structured society with Don Quixote's love of chivalry. But he quickly pivots to the argument that some of Marx's predictions were incorrect. The workers of the world became better off under markets, as evidenced by the lower-class British people who were vacationing in their area. It's a good case of leading off with respect, yet pushing back.

While finding things to agree with or admire in the literature, also find ways where your worldview offers a better explanation. It doesn't always have to be contradictory.

Why It's Important

When presented with a new fact, view, or observation, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Frequently you can and will believe it. When that new fact challenges you, ask, “Must I believe it?” Rarely will you have to. (This observation comes from Jonathan Haidt.) You need to fight this tendency when engaging in discourse with your friend.

Such conversations can open your respective minds to outlooks neither of you considered. They can change how you approach those ideas. You might stop rejecting the ideas immediately and think of your friend. You move a step closer to civil discourse.

Not everyone is a level-headed exemplar of the ideas they hold. People can hold kooky ideas that are neither justifiable nor defensible. Some people are just disconnected from the rest of the world.

If you hold views that are out of fashion with your friends, peers, or those engaging in broader political discourse, conversations such as those outlined above are even more important. There are many ways to get ideas to seep into the public debate. Discourse is richer when we take our opposition seriously and extend them goodwill. Given the sheer amount of talking past each other, the continuous mischaracterization of opinions, and the animosity we have toward opposing views, these private discourses can do a lot to change the national character if we take them seriously.

  • James M. Hohman is assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.