“Why don’t you climb down off the cross, take the wood to build a bridge, and get over it!” ~ Christopher Titus
It seems to me there’s a lot of self-righteous martyrdom going around. Let me rephrase that: It seems to me there’s a lot of undeserved self-righteous martyrdom going around. And with it, somewhat paradoxically, a false sense of entitlement. (But, perhaps the two go together.)
We’re an opinionated species or, at least, we like to think we are. An opinion, by definition, is a belief based on one’s evaluation of available facts. But many, if not most, people I know often express their beliefs based on either the evaluation of a few, conveniently selected facts, or on no evaluation of facts at all. In both of those cases they are not expressing opinions; they are stating prejudices – usually loudly and with little interest, if any, in listening to the other person.
The advanced skill of looking at something through someone else’s eyes is a difficult one to master. This is largely due to a lack of ability, or being unwilling, to consider – even very briefly — the notion that one might be incorrect about one’s viewpoint. As westerners (although I have no good reason to exclude the eastern hemisphere’s populace) we love to draw lines in the sand about our beliefs, and eschew open and considered evaluations for fear of eradicating those lines. (And I would argue that the less we know about what we allegedly believe in, the more we want that line kept where it is.) Of course, the hotter the topic, the less we tend to want to consider other points of view. Thanks to the limited scope of news reporting, often biased one way or the other, and the plethora of incorrect information posted to the various so-called social media outlets, a segment of the population – probably not the majority, but definitely the loudly loquacious – holds court on any number of topics with no interest in verification of the data supporting their viewpoint, much less in even acknowledging the opposing viewpoint being worth listening to. The problem is simply this: Once one refuses to consider an alternative viewpoint, one falls into an intellectual black hole. A black hole that sucks in all logic, decency, rational thought, and hope for problem resolution. And problems left unresolved fester until the shared soul is horribly infected. Nowhere is this infection more evident than in the polar dissension displayed on national hot topics.
To throw a spark onto the tinder, consider the so-called national debate on the issue of gun control in the United States. I have many friends and acquaintances on both sides of the issue, although it would be more accurate to say they are at or close to the extreme sides; I only know two people who have firm viewpoints, but who willingly acknowledge the rationale of the opposing viewpoints. Both sides agree on one thing: There are far too many homicides and accidental deaths due to firearm use or misuse. But where one camp advocates strictly defined gun control, the other holds to unrestricted legal ownership. The one wants the Second Amendment re-defined (at the very least); the other wants it kept as is. One camp believes the opposing side is comprised of Neanderthals who want to own hundreds of firearms, including bazookas and tanks, while the other camp views its opponents as brain-addled bleeding hearts who just want everyone to sit in a circle and sing “Kumbaya” (if I am being hyperbolic, it isn’t by much). Neither side is willing to set aside for awhile the comfort of their carved-in-stone “opinions” to collectively address the issue they agree on. And there lies both the problem and my point.
I chose to use the gun control issue as my example because I know so many people on both sides, and my generalizations in the above paragraph are based on them (as well as some news articles I’ve read and interviews I’ve watched) and their common insistence that they have rights to their opinions, even though they barely, if at all, have tried to understand the other side’s arguments. Gun control is a major hot topic, and therefore easy to use as illustration, but this failure to be willing to evaluate all sides of an issue is prevalent in our society and might be the greatest impediment to effective communication and the addressing — much less the resolution — of every issue we need to address.
In no way am I suggesting people abandon what their guts tell them. Experience has taught me that in the vast majority of instances my gut is a really good advisor, but even the best advisor’s recommendations should be tempered with a reasoned view of other possibilities. If there will be any hope at all for resolving challenging issues, that hope will be realized through open, reasoned debate, and not head-in-the-sand obstinance. We, as a society, need to understand this.
It is critical to accept the simple (OK, not so simple) fact that conceding there is validity in other viewpoints is not a sign of weakness. It is, in fact, a sign of resolve: It’s the ultimate commitment to wanting to solve a problem. Abject dismissal of a viewpoint because it doesn’t agree with one’s personal agenda is indicative of a narrow or even closed mind. Not much can be resolved if people have hands over their ears while saying “lalalalalala” anytime someone says something they don’t want to consider.
Frankly, it is a daily exercise for me to practice what I have been preaching, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy. In fact, it is often uncomfortable. And in case you’re wondering, evaluating other viewpoints as best possible most often does not change what my gut wants me to believe, but at the least the practice almost always helps me refine my counter-arguments, and allows me to better understand the mindset of those with whom I disagree.
And there’s no downside to better understanding. None, whatsoever.