I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how people formulate their opinions; from the most mundane one-off thoughts, to the political positions they passionately defend, to the judgments that can make or break relationships. Yes, this ramble can be applied to the debate over WikiLeaks, but it’s certainly not the only, nor primary matter that got me thinking along these lines.
It may seem a bit cliché, but I keep coming back to the two seemingly oppositional manners of thinking: One, that actions fall into either one camp or the other – right or wrong, good or bad – that actions or ideas are black and white in nature. Two, that within each action or idea there exist many shades of gray.
Common wisdom, as I understand it, is that we’re taught the concepts of good and bad early as children in order to instill within us a sense of values and morality. Some people learn this from parents, from school, from religion, from self-discovery, and some never learn it at all.
As we grow older, we’re confronted with increasingly complex situations that require additional ways of thinking. More nuanced emotions and motivations come into play, and in order to exist in such a world, most develop a sense that there are shades of gray to every issue.
Some might argue that the very idea of believing in “shades of gray” represents a compromised manner of thinking. That it signifies a loss of ideals, a fall from grace, and even requires the sacrifice of important principles of decency. Some may believe that the ever increasing shades of gray in this world have lead us down a road of weakened morality that causes increased conflict and destruction.
I would like to propose something that may seem both blatantly obvious and/or hopelessly abstract: That there are shades of gray between the very concepts of “black and white” and “shades of grey” (Yes…I know, I know…that does sound a bit ridiculous, but hear me out).
I think that you can believe in issues, be principled, have morals, but still believe in complexity of process and the nuance of the issues at hand. It’s call practicality, and it shouldn’t be considered a dirty word.
One of the most important concepts I learned in my years of schooling (or possibly more so just from arguing with my family growing up) is that when you’re arguing a point, your position is weakened immensely if you do not address opposing viewpoints. For example, I can’t solidly argue that the best move for our economy is more government spending without addressing what I believe to be the merits and failures of a deficit reduction policy path.
No matter what you believe in – “black and white,” “shades of gray,” or some other philosophy - it’s precisely when you feel the most certain that your reasoning is correct that you should step back and consider the merits of the opposing viewpoints.
I’m not suggesting that any manner of thinking or opinion is flat out wrong. I just believe that the more passionately you believe in a method of thinking or an opinion, the more susceptible you are to overlooking the very counterpoints you really should be considering. It’s a bias that everyone should make an effort to avoid.
Taking the time to explore counterpoints will always lead to a more in depth understanding of the issue at hand. It produces a stronger ability to coexist, live, work, and even love those with whom you disagree. It is, in my opinion, the most effective way to bring about that more idealistic world that so many people believe has slipped away due to a compromise of ideals.
This may all seem very basic and obvious, so why not just take this back to an old childhood saying that applies at any age (and I might have just been better served thinking of this anecdote before writing): Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. At the very least, you will have a baseline with which to pursue a more productive and civil dialogue.