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?