This week in Sunday Life I quit arguing
If I had my time again I wouldn’t have asked Dad’s permission to see Nightmare on Elm Street 4 when I was 15, thus spending the next five weeks arguing why he was wrong to say no. I would’ve just gone, like my friends did.
At a guess, I spent approximately 11/15ths of my teenage years arguing My Point to my parents. Which handed my five younger siblings incredible unscrutinsed freedom to do what they liked. They – wisely – took the line, that I only learned much later in life while working for Kerry Packer, “Don’t ask for permission, know how to beg for forgiveness”.
It’s an interesting point to explore right now. Because, frankly, everyone seems to be arguing to flaccid effect. If you’re not throwing the remote at journalist Andrew Bolt’s head on the telly, you’re throwing it at Dick Smith’s or Gwyneth Paltrow’s or Lord Monckton. And Federal politics has descended into a My Point-scoring scrum. One where the ball was lost long ago. It’s like we’re all standing in front of my dad. I say this, because my dad was supreme at not relenting to Another Point.
A Gen Zer asked me at a Coal Seam Gas rally the other day if there was any point to arguing. A Gen Yer wouldn’t have asked such a question. They’re the quintessential younger sibling in the equation (with Gen Zers a sort of second-rounds eldest child). I took on his question quite seriously (as Gen Xers do; we also still attend rallies) and this week explored it further.
Dispiritingly, a lot of the research dedicated to the topic finds arguing a point doesn’t work. Worse, it leads to what has been dubbed “The Backfire Effect” by US researchers. When you challenge someone’s deepest convictions – especially on wedge issues like climate change and refugees – it actually works to strengthen their views.
We are programmed to only listen to views that keep us feeling as we already do (which is understandably efficient). So we only notice and accept, for instance, the studies that confirm red wine is good for us. Unless we’re militant teetotalers. I guess it’s also why when we weigh ourselves – and like the result – we don’t double-check.
But worse, we also actively dismiss evidence that contradicts us. Which is why birthers became more and more convinced Barack Obama is not a US citizen when his birth certificate was finally presented. It gave them more content to critique and posit as conspiracy theory, thus deepening their original belief that there’s a grand coverup going on.
But surely we should stand by our convictions, no? Perhaps not. David McRaney explores the research on the topic in his new book You Are Not So Smart and finds we actually have no idea what our convictions are. Or at least once we start explaining or arguing them, we lose them. He cites The Poster Test. Scientists invited one group to choose and keep their favourite art poster from a selection. A second group was asked the same, but had to explain their choice. Six months later, the first group still loved their choice. The second hated theirs. Which, as McRaney says, renders focus groups, “farts in the wind”.
I’m not sure I accept all this (but then I wouldn’t – it contradicts my belief about arguing). But during the week followed some heated threads on my blog. When arguments ignited, they went nowhere. And the more hyperlinks and Wikipedia references thrown down, the more dissenters jumped on loopholes or mis-logics. We now have every fact available to us at a Google click. But it’s not producing consensus. It’s sending us further and further into our preconceived ideas.
So what’s the solution? Important points very much need to be made at the moment – especially in regards to climate change and refugees. I guess one approach is to consciously and humbly accept we might not actually know things, that we’re just gripping to A Point. To explore facts innocently. And not impose or go for the jugular. Which can be hard when you think you’re right, right?
I personally found this helped humble me a little: McRaney also highlights research that shows the less we know, the more we think we’re right.
Or conversely, as Bertrand Russell said:
“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”