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20.6.04

Understanding The Enemy

Joe Carter links to a post by Hunt Stillwell arguing that:

Attempting to understand the behavior and thought processes of someone whose conceptual scheme has little overlap with your own is simply not cognitively possible.


Stillwell doesn't give much in the way of evidence for this conclusion, instead moving on to try to understand the thought processess of these amateur psychoanalysts he's criticizing. Now, I agree that the punditsphere is filled with terrible straw-man renditions of the writer's opponents' thought processes. It took me quite a while to wean myself of the habit of imputing bad motives to my opponents when I began writing my newspaper columns. And it's doubtless true that in many -- perhaps even most -- cases, the reason people explain their opponents' thought processes is to frame them negatively and to shore up their confidence in their own position.

But I have great difficulty accepting that that's all that can ever happen. To do so would seem to pull the rug out from under any attempt at communicative action wider than partisan collaboration (which would mostly serve to shore up one's own position). We could shout at, but never convince, each other. Stilwell is in fact deeply pessimistic about the possibility of communicative action:

Even if we could reliably reason about their thought processes, I'm not sure it would do us any good. In the end, we'd disagree with them no more, or no less, and we'd still want to make sure that our, and not their, principles were enacted.


If you set about trying to understand how your opponents think with the assumption that your view is entirely correct, then it is quite possible that the project won't do you any good. You might learn something that allows you to outfox them. But to come out of it with the potential for greater agreement, you need to go into it open to that possibility. You need to grant that there is some form of intersubjectively shared reasoning capacity, and that both you and your opponent are interested in using it properly to get closer to the truth. In this sense, we have to make a good faith effort not to resort to psychosis as a part of our explanation of how our opponents think (e.g., claiming that they've been brainwashed, or they're just prejudiced, or they're repressing something, etc.). People being what they are, there's an element of psychosis in the explanation for nearly all our beliefs. But it's far too tempting, easy, and counterproductive to grab that sort of argument (in part for the reasons Stillwell discusses).

The number of times that understanding how your opponents think will result in resolution of controversy is of course small. The human mind is a weak instrument. But there are benefits to be picked up along the way. First is respect. In my experience, one of the best ways to find that people who disagree with you are not venal and stupid is to make a good-faith effort to understand why they think what they think. Perhaps for some people it's immensely satisfying to be able to think of their opponents as objects to be defeated*, but I find it much more fulfilling to be able to see them as rational agents. It can also earn respect from your opponents. For example, I know I'm much more inclined to respect and listen to a social conservative who appears to grasp why I support same-sex marriage than one who spouts off about me being in the grip of postmodern moral relativism, or one who is unwilling to use any arguments that don't depend on the unshared assumption of Biblical literalism.

Second, consideration of others' thought processes helps to improve our own. It's similar to the way that one of the best ways to sharpen your understanding of English grammar is to learn a foreign language. This is not only about becoming more astute at backing up your conclusions, but also about potentially reshaping them in light of how things look from a different perspective. To return to the language example, the foreign language can help you see flaws in your native tongue. But again, this assumes that we go into the project aiming at having the most justified opinion, rather than with an assumption that we've already settled on the correct opinion.

Perhaps in some cases your opponents' worldview is just too distant from your own, and your resources (in time and cognitive ability) are too small, so you'll never be able to really understand how they think. But the only way to know you can't is to assume for the sake of argument that you can, then try and fail -- though even that is only a tentative falsification of the "can" hypothesis.

*This is probably the most parsimonious explanation for the level of vitriol in the blogosphere.

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