A recent comment on my “About Me” post caused me to think it may be helpful to clarify my stance on discourse.
I think the modern image of someone who is open-minded and searching for truth tends to be associated with hesitancy, relativism and a tone of overt humility. I reject this image, because I think as we search for truth in real-time, we must fully live out what we most currently believe, and most coherent beliefs imply exclusivity. Now, a bold confidence in one’s current beliefs may be mistaken for dogmatism, because this style of discourse tends to be associated in the modern mind with being intellectually closed. One doesn’t necessarily have to be milquetoast to be honestly open to new ideas, however. I think one must move full speed ahead with what one currently understands to be true, assuming one has done the intellectual leg-work to justify full current confidence; all the while, though, one must be willing to do even a complete 180 if a compelling new perspective comes to light.
Such a stance is apparently rare enough that I often find people claiming that my actively seeking out new perspectives must be disingenuous. When I call out aspects that seem illogical or contradictory in other people’s worldviews, it’s often assumed that I must be a zealot for my own perspective. To the contrary, though, I’m ready to drop everything I currently hold to be true immediately upon receiving compelling evidence that I should do so. Now, to be sure, the threshold for which evidence is accepted as compelling is subjective. Nonetheless, I try to be quite charitable when I get the sense that someone who happens to disagree with me is equally open-minded and not simply unquestioningly sold-out to a given viewpoint. I hold my views loosely but boldly, and I most appreciate those who do likewise, recognizing that there is no contradiction in doing so.
Another issue of discourse which often comes up is meaning and language. I find that when a person is faced with evidence that their views are contradictory or incoherent, they often fall back on the excuse that they don’t want to play “language games,” or that they’re not trying to be a “philosopher” or a “professor.” The implication of these fall backs is that sloppy thinking or communication should be utterly excused in all but professional academics or pundits. Interestingly, those who use these fall backs often start out making very precise truth claims, retreating into linguistic amorphousness only when those claims are questioned. Language is, of course, a dynamic tool, and one should be charitable in one’s interpretation of another’s communication. Further, language is often artful, and surface meanings that appear erroneous or paradoxical can still elucidate deep truths. Finally, human fallibility and individuality should give pause to anyone who believes they have superior insight into the meanings of another. I think it’s clear, however, that we all have an obligation to defend our proffered beliefs, because a belief that can’t be rigorously defended isn’t really a belief at all, it’s simply a habit or tradition. For better or worse, the only tool humans have for interpersonal exchange regarding specific truth claims is language. Language has clear limitations, and one has to be willing to be flexible in interpreting others, but the claim that meaning is impossibly elusive is inherently contradictory. To even offer such a claim is to imply that one has a basic confidence that one’s meaning is able to be gleaned.
All this is to say that if someone claims adherence to a given worldview, I think it’s perfectly fair game to expect them to “own” all the implications of that worldview. Further, I find I often understand a perspective best when I hear defenses of its apparent weak points. Therefore, I commonly question others in order to gain insight into their view of reality. Some people are uncomfortable with this, and I often leave off if I think someone isn’t willing to candidly discuss their beliefs. It used to be, though, that people would seek out and even befriend those with differing beliefs, and I think such an approach is quite respectable.
It’s unfortunate that in contemporary society, an honest position is associated only with complete agreement. Being in disagreement and being disagreeable have become conflated in meaning. I’ll continue, however, to seek out and question those whose perspectives differ from mine, because I think those people are most well resourced to either make me reconsider my own beliefs, or give me further confidence in them.
p.s. The preceding should in no way be read as intended toward dismissing, marginalizing or negating the points made by the commenter who was the catalyst for this post. I think he brings up important issues, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to distance myself from those who would disingenuously “play at” truth-seeking.