on discourse and friendship

I remember the moments when my opinions on healthcare changed. There were two.

The first was early on in my teaching career. I avoided talking politics with my students - certainly current politics - but for some reason I was sitting at my desk and a student asked me what my opinion was on universal healthcare. I was slightly distracted, checking grades or something, and as she was right there and the class was doing something else, I answered honestly (and mostly parroting what my father believed): that I didn't know, that I was worried about what it would do to taxes and that I didn't trust the government to do a better job than what we currently have. My student, sharp as could be, said, "Miss, that's because you've never had to go without health insurance."

The other moment was not much longer later, when I was talking online to a friend that lives in Canada. He pointed out what I didn't know at the time, that the US is the only first world country that doesn't have universal health care.

These things gave me pause. They were major contributing factors to my changing my mind and the way I thought about the issue.

I have spent the last eight years teaching students how to think critically: how to take evidence as a whole and build a rational, logical argument based on that evidence, and how to determine what counts as quality evidence to begin with. I am routinely appalled by how many adults seem to have zero understanding of this process.

It used to be that when I disagreed with someone, particularly in the areas of religion or politics, I said nothing. Public conflict tends to make me deeply uncomfortable, and I told myself that there was no use discussing these topics - no one would change their minds and it would only succeed in making people angry.

Teaching taught me otherwise. (It is remarkable how much one learns by teaching. Sometimes I think my students taught me more than I ever managed to teach them.) Most people have never had their thought processes challenged. Most people don't automatically check to see how valid a source is. Most people don't stop to ask themselves how much bias they have on a topic, and they don't stop to consider how their privilege or social standing is affecting their beliefs. Most people can't point out logical fallacies, and even if they can, they don't seem to understand that a logical fallacy means an argument is objectively invalid. And the only way to get most people thinking rationally is by pointing out when they are not, and hope that, in return, someone will do the same for you. (The way to fix this is by systemic, high-quality public education, but that's a topic for another post.)

Put more simply: teaching taught me that if stupidity and ignorance isn't pointed out and something done to correct it, it grows exponentially.

There is a balance, though. It works best when the topic discussed is one that neither person is deeply emotionally connected to, as emotion essentially cancels out the rational thought processes of the frontal cortex. The problem is that the biggest social issues and the greatest founts of stupidity tend to be in places where people are deeply emotional. So you have a choice: you can either attempt to engage logically anyway, and hope that the logic triumphs once emotions have cooled, or you can not say anything on the big emotional topics and only start discourse on smaller issues. Sometimes thinking logically about something you're not emotional about can transfer over to things you are emotional about. And regardless, often the people who are watching the exchange benefit from it more than the ones involved.

I believe, strongly, in public discourse. I believe that, for us to move forward as a species, we have to have discussions on topics that affect us deeply, or we are doomed. I believe that refusing to engage or sequestering yourself so that you only hear opinions that mirror your own is a sign of weakness - an inescapable tragic flaw.

And yet there are times when I choose not to say anything, because the person has expressed something so horrifyingly ignorant (and usually hateful) that I cannot trust myself to avoid the ad hominem attack. Sometimes I have enough history with a person that I am not willing to risk our entire relationship just to make a point. Sometimes I know the topic is so entrenched in personal identity that there is almost no hope of change, and I let it slide. Sometimes I hope that someone else will have the courage to say what I don't.

I agonize over those moments. When a cis-male spews hate about a MTF transperson, or when a missionary says that adults should pay for their own food and health care, I cringe. I write out possible responses. Sometimes I hit delete, and I wonder if the point where discourse seems impossible is the point when it is no longer worth remaining friends.