If you’re like me, you’ve found that the current state of the world is bringing up complex issues that are challenging your beliefs and pushing you to evolve your identity. The wildly varying ideas around how to deal with Covid-19, issues of social justice, especially racism and police violence, and the upcoming American presidential election have created a battleground of the mind. Everywhere you look people are angry and screaming for change. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lives and livelihoods are on the line.
These difficult topics are everywhere in social and traditional media, but are also present in charged, real-world conversations with family, friends and, more than I can ever remember, at work as well. While most people are well-intentioned, there are undoubtedly bad agendas being pushed by both well meaning people as well as by bad actors taking advantage of a historical moment. You don’t have to look far to see how dangerously divided we’re becoming.
If you’re unwilling to accept the herd mentality (as you should be) and to go along with the madness of the crowds, you’ll need a framework to help you avoid being converted to bad ideologies by their strong emotional appeals and instead, form your own opinions based on a deeper understanding of the world.
It’s no small task.
Proponents at every point in the spectrum of ideas are astute and come with polished presentations that appeal deeply to our desire for social acceptance. Their arguments are made on a primal, emotional level that can easily override calmer, rational thinking.
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”Charlie Munger
On the surface, Munger’s advice may seem obvious but, if you spend a few minutes listening to the news, podcasts, or reading opinion pieces online, you’ll see that it’s almost never followed.
It’s very easy to convince yourself that you already understand both sides or that you’re making a real effort to do so when, in fact, you’re just strengthening your own position by looking for obvious or surface-level weaknesses in views that challenge your own. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that you’re dealing with a complex topic where there are rational and intelligent people on both sides.
“There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”Tyler Cowen’s First Law
You’re wasting your time re-enforcing your own pre-held ideas if you haven’t found the smartest person on the other side and spent significant time reading their work, listening to their lectures on YouTube, or otherwise deeply engaging with their ideas.
You’ll know you’re truly understanding when two things happen:
First, you will feel that there’s a possibility that you might become convinced by an idea you didn’t hold before. By definition, it will be an uncomfortable feeling. If you inspect it closer, you’ll find that it’s rooted in the threat of a mini-ego-dissolution. This is because you’ve made yourself vulnerable to persuasion. Being persuaded away from a strongly held belief threatens your status quo, which is the thing your ego is there to protect. This is the sign of true open-mindedness. It’s not an easy path, and it doesn’t come without risk, but if you really want to understand, it is the way.
Second, you will know you’ve understood when you no longer feel defensive when discussing an idea with someone who doesn’t share your views. Defensiveness arises when we sense a threat to our identity. If you’ve followed Munger’s advice above, you shouldn’t feel that threat anymore. You’ll have already done the hard work.
The loss of defensiveness is not to be confused with complacency. Strong opinions can, and should, cause us to feel passion that leads us to making change in our lives as well as giving us a desire to convince others to do the same. But right action doesn’t arise from defensiveness, it arises from wisdom.
A Note on Dangerous Ideas
There are, of course, certain ideas that are simply not worth understanding deeply, even given the points I just made above. Extremely charismatic people can, and often do, convince well intentioned truth-seekers of dangerous or harmful ideas. Use your judgement. The world is complex and we can’t hope to understand it without taking some risk, but discernment is still called for.
All that having been said, in order to stay sane, as my favorite Stoic Marcus Aurelius said:
“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.Meditations 6.52
Following the advice in the first part of this article is exhausting and time-consuming. So, unless it’s something that is within your circle of influence, that affects your every day life, or something you’re genuinely interested in, it’s probably not worth taking the time and effort to form an opinion about it.
It’s okay not to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t know yet, let me get back to you.” In fact, usually it’s better.
The world is changing fast. Bad ideas masquerading as good ones abound. In many cases, complacency is no longer an option. Even though sometimes it feels like you’re being left behind by the rapid changes around you, it’s worth taking the time to form good, strong opinions and, unless you’ve really felt that sense of threat to your ego when coming to an opinion, you probably still have work to do. When it’s necessary, do the work When it’s not, follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice–don’t get caught in the waves that would otherwise harmlessly pass you by.