Getting Philosophical

There is one more session of Arguments, Fallacies and Trickery, the philosophy class I’m attending at the WEA. We have been looking at aspects of reasoning and how language can be used to manipulate our responses to issues and ideas.

The course has led me to dig out the books I have – some unread – about philosophy, thinking, and language used in argument.

I’ve been examining how I express – or fail to express – a point of view, and have found I often let my feelings get in the way. Edward de Bono‘s six thinking hats lets us acknowledge feelings (red hat). I often berate myself for not offering a view, particularly when someone makes an unsupported assertion in conversation. My reading is helping me to clarify my ideas and my thinking processes so that I can experiment with careful, considered responses. A friend uses the “commend, recommend, commend” technique which is a useful starting point and easy to remember when you are put on the spot. The “commend” part helps to see the other person’s point of view, which can help to quell the anger response which tends to result in a standoff, with polarised views. De Bono develops this in his chapters: “How to Agree”, “How to Disagree” and “How to Differ” in How to Have a Beautiful Mind (2004). The aim of his book is to encourage the readers to use their minds – beyond intelligence or knowledge – just as they might exercise the body.

We have become accustomed to a different, cooperative, collaborative style of leadership in Jacinda Ardern which emphasises kindness. Every achievement from gun control to environmental protection was sweeter for having been collaborative and responsive to events and needs. When asked if she found the coalition negotiations frustrating, Ardern said that, on the contrary, it was an aspect of leadership which she enjoyed. I am disappointed to see the old “oppositional” model being ramped up by the latest opposition leadership. Of course, the name “the opposition” sets up this style of discourse. It is calculated, of course, particularly with an election in October, because many people respond to it with relish, whichever “side” they are on.

Deborah Tannen in The Argument Culture (1998) begins the book by addressing “our tendency to engage in ritualized, knee-jerk opposition…our tendency…to approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” It is a tendency of Western culture, she contends, which “has served us well in many ways but in recent years has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems. Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention – an argument culture.”

How much worse it is now with social media and the internet generally adding to this culture. How easy it seems to slip into old habits and “go on the attack” (war imagery pervades our language) instead of looking for positive ways of responding which enable common ground and agreed solutions. When the Dalai Lama was asked what is the secret to living a good life, he replied: “Be kind.” It is such a simple and obvious thing to do.

Edward de Bono says we should always be looking for alternatives – as in his lateral thinking for which he became famous in the 1970s. It is disturbing that this technique, and the thinking hats, might be dismissed as no longer fashionable – “old hat” – when we need them more than ever.

There was a pro-life rally in the central city in the weekend and I felt a surge of anger as I saw men in pro-life t-shirts. It was some time before my thinking led to common ground. Probably, pro-life and pro-choice both want a society in which it is safe for a woman to bear a child in most circumstances. When looking for alternatives to the currently polarised views, I wondered if both sides could direct the energy created by perceived injustice into making a society in which women are not degraded, fearful and intimately scrutinised. In which they are not held responsible for the crimes of others. In which bringing notice to themselves does not make them vulnerable or subject to the controlling actions of others. In which they have access to fair pay and resources. In which they have the support of law – begun, in part, by the recent legislation in which abortion is a health issue, not a criminal one. It could be a way to move forward.

My re-thinking is a work in progress. (Double meanings intentional.)

Finding common ground? Ron Mueck, chicken/man, Christchurch Art Gallery. Less subtle is the power play in the painting on the right.