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How to talk with total morons

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 October 2017, 8.36am

Whatever else Brexit has done or will do, and whatever Trump is or isn’t, these all-consuming news giants have hardened conversation between us.

They have brutalised discourse, which in turn, brutalises people.

Dialogue becomes a repressed version of war, which it was never meant to be.

Communities of the convinced struggle with each other like blind armies in the night…

...with weapons of sound bite, mockery, rage and selective use of evidence.

The airless equation is this: ‘we’re right, you’re wrong, end of.’

And as opinions harden, there follows the shift from the pursuit of truth to the winning of the argument… and these are two quite different things.

It’s a climate of discourse that makes fools of us, obviously…and often rather self-righteous fools.

Because whether it’s a family row, an office dispute or a political debate, no one has a monopoly on the truth; everyone has a bit of it.

Truth doesn’t live in either/or.

Hollow-eyed certainty sells well, we know this, even if it’s dishonest and insane – note the Russian revolution, whose centenary is this year, and present-day religious fundamentalism.

But they each had or have their genius.

And anyway, they’re easy targets when there are examples of destructive certainty much nearer home.. like at home, or work, or social media…and primarily, of course, in myself.

‘I’m absolutely right!’

So how do we speak in this climate? Is it even possible?

How do we engage with those who disagree with us?

We can batter them with our arguments, mock their absurdities or simply shut up shop and storm out the door.

‘Oh, I can’t be doing with this!’

But Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, has another suggestion.

‘When we wish to correct with advantage,’ he says, ‘and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter…and admit that truth to him.’

In other words, we introduce empathy to the exchange by noting the truth in what they say.

This simple but revolutionary move changes the climate and at least opens the possibility of a conversation.

‘He is satisfied with that,’ continues Pascal, ‘for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.’

Pascal understands that none of us like to be mistaken.

For some, the idea of being ‘wrong’ is impossible to face without some form of terrifying existential meltdown.

But – and here’s the crux - we might allow the possibility that we have not seen all sides.

‘No one is offended at not seeing everything’ says Pascal, ‘But one does not like to be mistaken.’

And so an alternative path through this dark, dark wood becomes apparent.

If someone wishes to help me when I am stuck in a particular view or way, they need first to help me lower my defences which protect my well-staked-out territory

If you immediately start to tell me all the ways in which I’m wrong and terrible - apart from my sense of shame going into over-drive - there’s no incentive for me to listen or co-operate.

But if we became partners in truth’s discovery?...

‘I see your truth. But can you also see a little of mine?’

Here is no easy answer.

For under-pinning inappropriate clinging to certainty are shame and the need for control – psychological states which possess a blind and brutal strength.

These can be crucifying.

Yet to start with the truth of another, to stand in their shoes in some manner, to understand this strong river of feeling, to find some truth there…

...well, it may at least help me to recover my own soul, which is a start.

Pascal didn’t have the answer; but he did have a point.

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