Idiots, Maniacs and Me

I spend a lot of time arguing with people on Facebook. Perhaps too much time. But as I’m writing a script or doing some other sort of creative work, I find it helpful to jump back and forth between whatever I’m writing and whatever I’m arguing about. I used to play chess and Scrabble online for the same reason, but this is a pretty good alternative, because it allows me to play against multiple opponents at once. I make a move, go away and do some work, then come back and see what moves the other people have made, make my counter-move, and so on. At least, that’s how I justify it to myself. Perhaps it’s merely a sophisticated form of procrastination.

At any rate, it’s also becoming rather tiresome. And discouraging. Lately we’ve been arguing about guns. Before that it was hell and all sorts of other theological issues. The common thread running throughout all of these debates is that no one ever changes their mind. My hope is that debating an issue (thesis vs. synthesis) will help us arrive at some sort of synthesis, a combination of our positions where the sum is greater than the parts. Instead, what typically results is entrenchment and bad feelings. Someone is presented with a fact-based argument that offends their sensibilities, so they respond with an emotionally charged outburst. This makes you angry, so you respond in kind. Very quickly, an argument can go from fact to feelings to f*ck you! At least in your head. I, for one, try to stick to the facts as much as possible in my posts, but I’m only human.

Which leads me to wonder why we are so emotionally invested in our beliefs. I’ve often said that your level of emotional investment in a particular belief is positively correlated with your lack of confidence in that belief. Weak point. Pound the pulpit harder! But it goes beyond mere intellectual assertion. Beliefs form the foundation of our identity. Threaten my beliefs, and you threaten me. That leaves me with two choices (or so I perceive if self-preservation is my prime directive): fight or flight. Flight is the easier option, which is why we tend to congregate with like-minded people, lobbing the occasional grenade at our enemies or, if we perceive a weakness, storming the trenches. But if they press the issue and storm our trenches, we feel we have no choice but to plant our flag and claim the hill–or die trying. Surrender is never an option, because that would mean ceding the moral high ground to our enemies, who are clearly the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. The problem is, our opponents feel as perfectly justified in their beliefs as we do in our ours. So who’s to say we aren’t the unwitting purveyors of doom?

I think George Carlin nails our predicament in the video above. To put it in political terms, those who are to the left of me are idiots, and those who are to the right of me are maniacs (or vice versa, depending on where you plant yourself on the political spectrum). The point is, we are all walking around with a self-justifying paradigm bumping into other people who are walking around with the same. If only these other idiots and maniacs would take off their emotional/moral/intellectual blinders, they would concede to the obvious superiority of my position. But if everyone is feeling that way, how can we possibly resolve any of these disputes when our emotional dispositions render us effectively immune to fact-based arguments?

I see only one solution: If emotions are the path by which we arrive at our views and form our identity, then the only way we will ever change our minds is due to a “corrective emotional experience” that defies our sensibilities and causes us–for a brief flicker of time–to reconsider the philosophical/theological presuppositions that brought us to this point. In screenwriting terms, we call this the Ordeal, the moment at which a protagonist comes to the end of him or herself, where the focus shifts from self-preservation to self-sacrifice.

Until that happens, I’m nothing but a guy ranting in my car about these other idiots and maniacs on the road. And we all know how pathetic that guy can be. Unfortunately, I’ve  come to see that Facebook is far from the perfect medium to induce such emotionally corrective experiences in myself or others. So perhaps it’s time I found a new way to procrastinate… Online poker maybe?

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  • Proud Amelekite

    My hope is that debating an issue (thesis vs. synthesis) will help us arrive at some sort of synthesis, a combination of our positions where the sum is greater than the parts.]

    I once was reading the writing a debate teacher. Not sure at what level (college, high school, etc) but he was writing of how online debate was a good way to get used to debate in meat space (if you wanted to be a politician or a trial lawyer). In any case, in the document, he made an interesting point. Debates are never about changing the mind of the guy at the other podium. In fact, if you go into a debate thinking you are fighting to win them or find middle ground, you will be at a disadvantage against a more seasoned debater.

    In his view, you should view yourself as an actor playing a role on a stage. You aren’t debating against that other person but you are performing for the fence sitters who might read your post or hear your words. You are a verbal gladiator putting on a show for those who are moderate on your topic. Bill Nye was never going to convince Ham he was wrong and Obama was never going to turn Romney into a Democrat. I found this view quite helpful myself. Look at your debates as a performance and I find that, not only do you keep your cool much better, you have a lot more fun doing it. Just be careful you don’t hurt other people’s feelings – many do get quite emotional as you say.

    As for the rest of your post, it is insightful. I read a study that mentioned that facts hold little power to sway beliefs of people. That when we are presented with evidence that contradict our emotional positions that we are less likely to believe it. Religion can, for some, be a spiritual experience which ties it to intuition and emotion. Others may not be capable of spirituality but tie their real life relationships to Church and take attacks on their faith as attacks on loved ones. That is my guess anyways.

  • MrYowza07 .

    I wouldn’t say that no-one ever changes their mind, but I don’t think heated arguments cause minds to be changed. If we can stop wanting to be right and let go of the fear of failure to admit that we are wrong when we are and are genuinely wanting to know the truth, I think then when we’re presented with the facts our minds can be changed.

  • Tim

    That, and accepting ideas that require paradigm shifts is hard. Most people don’t want to do the work, especially if they can’t see any particularly good reason to do so.