Monday, October 11, 2021

How To Live With Opposition

There are enough number of people in the world who will tell you that the world is becoming "increasingly polarized", that respectful political debate is "a thing of the past", that people talk past each other "all the time".

You will also be forced to pick a side. "You're either with us or against us."

These ideas come from a binary understanding of the world. By looking at things from a single dimension. Even in that dimension, the middle ground is stripped and only the two extremes remain as options.

How do I know? Because I've straddled that path, found it unlivable, and found a better alternative.

I must thank Adam Grant for the book "Think Again" which helped me with timely insights while I was going through this journey. And I would recommend it to you (along with Eugenia Cheng's x + y).

So, what's the answer?

The short answer is that you shouldn't worry a lot.

The long answer is fairly complicated. Let's first go through some axioms.

The human world is complex and chaotic

Chaos meaning nothing is predictable. And complex meaning we don't yet know what to make of things. Economists, sociologists, stock market analysts - people who work very closely with the human world - are the most successful if they embrace this complexity and chaos. Adam Grant gives the example of the election forecaster who predicted that Donald Trump would become President of the United States much before anyone else did. The reason?

"The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles. They had the confident humility to doubt their judgments and the curiosity to discover new information that led them to revise their predictions."

This is so because the world is very chaotic and unpredictable. At best we can predict things just before things are going to happen - only if we are constantly holding our beliefs to scrutiny.

It is not that nothing can be predicted. There are several things which will follow patterns - but in controlled settings, where all the confounding variables have been controlled. And we can't isolate all confounding variables in the real world.

This is the reason smart people in public health research use tools like realist evaluation framework.

This is why it is useful to think of the world in terms of complex adaptive systems.

Simple, pure points are rarely correct

Even if Twitter didn't have character limits, people would choose simple straightforward "pure" intellectual positions. These are easier to articulate, easier to think about, and easier to argue for/against.

But if a point is being made about the real world and it doesn't capture the nuance of the chaos and complexity then chances are high that the point is incorrect or at least incomplete.

Almost all perspectives are correct

This doesn't contradict the previous point. Different people look at things from different perspectives. The human brain is amazingly capable in that it sums up all the experiences it has had in the past when looking at an issue - and it does this automatically. Each perspective that a human brings to any conversation is a summary of that person's entire life experience - even if they aren't conscious of it.

The secret is in finding the convergence of differing viewpoints. Before we discuss that, we will discuss the reason why there seem to be irreconcilable differences.

Brain's ability to reason and articulate such reasons is far too limited

Our brain produces incredible insights through "gut feeling". But when it comes to explaining these or articulating the exact feeling, it falters. This is based in neurobiology. Reasoning is a brain function that is different from the decision making function. Therefore, while our brain maybe excellent in making certain decisions, it could be very poor in articulating the reason for those decisions. This is not just a deficiency of language. It is also a symptom of how nuanced our brain's responses are - and how it summarizes one's life experiences. It is much easier to do things than to explain why. Even if one beautifully explains why, the explanation would probably not have captured the complete picture.

Disagreements result from lack of nuance

When different perspectives are seemingly irreconcilable, the reason is that they're articulated in simple, pure ways which conceal the underlying (reconcilable) shared values. If people are able to pour their insides out, they'll find that everyone is looking forward to achieving essentially the same things. One perspective might consider an "obtuse point" as "checks and balance", while another perspective considers those checks as the "main thing".

Also, everyone doesn't have the same set of life experiences. Therefore, one person's nuance will be missing in another person's nuance. It is often helpful to figure out the life experiences that someone brings in which leads them to a particular nuance. Because when you put several different experiences together (and experience those, even second hand), you get to produce better nuanced positions.

What to do with these axioms?

Think like a scientist. Adam Grant uses these exact words. But that's also what MK Gandhi used to do. Think like you're perpetually seeking the truth. Look for answers everywhere. Take every perspective as an empirical observation. And expand your theory to fit those observations (bring nuance). Everyone has theories about the world (that's how our brain works). Make your theory all encompassing. That way, you won't have opponents at all - you'll only have a theory that accounts for nuances. Don't be scared to get into debates. But get into debates with an intention to expand your view. (Of course, social conventions apply.) Watch other people argue and while you grab popcorn, also grab your microscope to analyze why different people are saying different things. Ask clarifying questions. Make it not about you or them, make it about the "truth". And remember that the truth is probably more nuanced than anyone can ever understand.

PS: This view of nuance unsettles a lot of people with strong opinions. They get scared that such "pragmatism" means a corruption of morals and politics. But, what I've experienced is that it is possible to fight a stronger fight when you're able to find flaws in your own political positions - and address them proactively. It also helps in building bridges with "opposition" - because you would not have a large number in the opposition anyhow. It is also severely practical. It accomplishes a lot more than a purist politics.

I'm sure you have something to add. Comments are welcome. I will add the nuance you bring into my theory :D


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