On the Merits of Humble Discourse

We’ve all had conversations with undesirable people. In our conversations, the other person may advance a position that seems utterly absurd, or we may have had prior conversations with them which have resulted in frustration. As a result, it’s far too easy to disregard their arguments on account of the way they’re phrased or our prior experiences with the individual. Perhaps, too, an individual presents an argument that sounds all-too-familiar to us, and we jump to the conclusion that we know exactly what they’re going to say. It’s tempting to disregard the arguments themselves or to avoid expending the energy to seriously consider them, but are we justified in doing so?

There are many reasons for why we do this, and some of them seem rather sensible. It could be that we’re preoccupied at the moment or tired, and thus we don’t have the sufficient time or energy to expend on the conversation. Then, there are times when we’ve heard the same argument over and over again. It’s common to encounter this when you’re familiar with debating. Depending on the issue, there are usually only so many novel positions that one can take. If you know the evidence and you know the arguments, it’s very tempting to sit back and say, “yeah, I’ve heard this one before.” The arguments may seem stupid, absurd, or undeveloped. It’s worse when we have repeatedly poor experiences with a particular person too. They may have previously advanced positions that we think to be ridiculous. In these cases, it’s very easy to dismiss them in the future. We have good reason to, do we not? They’re unreasonable, we say. We may similarly dislike the way people advance their positions as well. They may present their positions in a bold or offensive manner. When conversing, they may be aggressive, insulting, or possibly dismissive themselves. If someone doesn’t afford us respect, why should we give their arguments any consideration? We, subconsciously or consciously, decide to dismiss their arguments when these things occur.

Dismissing their arguments, while understandable, is often unjustified. If you don’t have the time or the energy to deal with a debate, that’s fair enough. You’re responsible for your own time and you shouldn’t be forced to converse if you don’t want to. In these situations, you should state your reasons for disengaging in the conversation. In the instances where we’re particularly familiar with an argument: we don’t know everything, do we? No matter how educated we are or how much information we acquire, we cannot be absolutely certain that we’re infallible. For this reason, if we care about the truth, we must always be willing to consider a counter-argument, even if it seems familiar to us. It may contain nuances that alter the way it deals with our own argument. After the other person’s argument has been presented we’ve seriously considered it, we may then resort to our typical counter-arguments (if their argument is indeed what we expected). However, we should never disregard it before completion as we can’t know with absolute certainty that it’s different and therefor, we may inadvertently strawman their argument. When it comes to positions we think are absurd or stupid: are we dismissing the position because it really is absurd or stupid, or are we dismissing the position because it deals with a type of content or argument that we have previously found to be absurd or stupid? Here, we come to the same problem as before: we cannot be sure without affording the argument serious consideration. For this reason, we must ignore our initial impressions of the argument and treat it as if it were its own unique case, because it is. It’s perfectly acceptable to be wary of arguments and to look for common flaws, but we must not assume these flaws to be there without seriously looking for them first. In the instances where the other person has previously advanced absurd positions, this is still not justification for dismissing their arguments. Like before, we may be wary of the types of flaws they’re used to having in their arguments, but we must treat each argument uniquely. Their previous arguments may have been illogical, but this does not mean that their current argument is necessarily illogical. We cannot be certain that it is without sincerely evaluating it, and thus we are still unjustified in dismissing it. In most of these instances, we cannot justifiable dismiss an argument prior to serious consideration because we cannot be absolutely certain of our presumptions about it.

Disrespectful conversations may seem like a unique case, but even then, there is no justification for dismissal. For instances where the information presented is offensively stated, this again does not mean that it’s incorrect. We would be falsely evaluating an unwelcome conclusion or framing to be invalid. Rather, we know that the way information is presented or the implications it has does not make it incorrect, so we cannot dismiss it on that account. What about situations where the other person surely is not affording us the same respect we are affording them? Isn’t it justified to dismiss them in those cases? We already know that their behavior and presentation doesn’t make them incorrect, but on the matter of their character, we are still unjustified in dismissing them. They are people, just like us, who have the same capacities for pain and pleasure. Treating them disrespectfully will not undo their disrespect, and it will not facilitate a respectful conversation. If anything, it will embolden them by making them feel justified and it will further derail the conversation. Rather, by affording them respect, we are showing ethical concern for their well-being and maintaining the possibility for respectful conversation. They deserve ethical concern on the mere basis that they can experience pain and pleasure. We deserve the same, even if they do not afford us this, but when they do not afford us respect, it does not mean they deserve less. We should only be motivated to reduce our own discomfort, but not to equally disrespect them as a form of retributive justice. Furthermore, disregarding them on the account of stupid, unreasonable, or offensive arguments only dehumanizes them. It makes us feel justified in treating them poorly when nobody was justified to begin with. Instead, we must realize that their behavior is motivated by other events. They may perhaps be stressed, exhausted, or irritable due to their day, their environment, or even their previous experiences with debating. Rather than encouraging that, we should promote a positive change by treating them respectfully. We also know what it’s like to be incorrect. Nobody starts off knowing everything, and in fact, we start off in just the opposite way. Even if they are incorrect, this does not mean they deserve ridicule or dismissal. We should treat them respectfully, share our knowledge with them, and promote this form of positive discourse. They may not always be reasonable in response to respect, but we at least are ethical in our treatment and we encourage the possibility of positive discourse. By affording them respect, they’re more likely to reciprocate respect and we increase the likelihood of having a respectful conversation. If we care about the truth and we care about human welfare, we must hold ourselves to higher standards of ethics and knowledge.

Our presumptions can often get in the way of learning. Even when we’re certain that the arguments presented to us are false, we can never be absolutely certain of this without seriously considering them. As such, all arguments warrant serious consideration regardless of their topic, presenter, or framing. To disregard this is to obstruct our ability to reach correct conclusions. Furthermore, we recognize that the presenter is a person capable of the same experiences we have. Ethically, we mustn’t dehumanize them by disregarding them as stupid or absurd. We should afford them respect on the basis of their capacity for pain and pleasure, but also on the basis that it encourages reciprocal treatment and the greater likelihood of a respectful conversation. By shedding our presumptions and dismissals, we not only become more ethical conversationalists, but we also increase the likelihood that we will learn and come to correct conclusions.


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