What Would I Have to Believe?

[Originally written August 2014]

Having spent more that 15 minutes on the internet, you’ve been danger-close to stupid opinions. We’ve all had the uncanny experience of watching a close friend, whose experiences and judgment we thought we respected, say something flabbergasting or outright boneheaded publicly on social media, and felt the disorientation and reevaluation that follows that.

Sometimes this can feel like an outright betrayal.  At others, it’s just embarassing, but still draws a line in the sand. Recently I had to block an acquaintance whose preoccupation with contrails was so distressing that I was unable to manage the shame I felt not calling him out on it.  I don’t have any explicitly racist friends (as an example) that I’m aware of, but I’d probably have to block them too, it would just be too exhausting– I can’t keep fighting the last war.  We all have to draw our lines, have our unique thresholds of disgust.  That inverse feeling, the surprise discovery of like-minded travelers and new so-called friends is the upside of this devil’s bargain. You’re gonna get both.

At bottom, I consider myself, if not a progressive, someone who comes from the left, but with a flexibility and openness to all points of view. Sure, I find liberalism challenging in many regards (and especially at this moment in history), but the current state of tea party-dominated conservatism is just an abyss, and unworthy of intellectual energy or attention.  That said, I prefer to talk to classic conservatives on a host of ideas, because it’s reliably stimulating to have your ideas worked on, and to understand the rationales of opposing points of view, especially now as we are increasingly insulated from points of view we find challenging or distasteful.  A principled opposition is almost always interesting.  Conversations with people I agree with, by contrast, tend to end in head-nods, and on to the next thing.

So a game I like to play in the spirit of testing my ideas is a game called “what would I have to believe?” This is basically a role-playing exercise where I need to migrate my opinion to a place where I discover what would need to change for me to hold an opposite opinion.   I’m so very sorry to say, I know far, far too many people who apparently never play this game.  It’s really simple, and works like this:

  1. Encounter an idea you find challenging or intriguing, or are opposed to at a gut-reaction level.  It’s especially interesting if you find it mildly threatening.
  2. Construct your own opposition. What’s the basis of your objection? What legs do you have to stand on?  What’s your gut reaction?  “That’s racist.”  Et cetera.  Warm up in your typical, shoot from the hip reaction.
  3. Assuming you understand the opposing argument, do the reverse. What would it take for you to believe the opposite argument were true? What scaffolding would need to be erected? What assumptions would need to hold?  This is best expressed as an act of either addition or subtraction: what propositions might you need to believe that you don’t believe now, or conversely, what beliefs that you hold now would have to be jettisoned to hold the proposition?  Ideally, this should be done with the least number of ‘moves’.
  4. (Remember, you are not yourself here, and so you have no recourse to your personal history or ego. Just, ‘what would you have to believe’ for the argument you dislike to work for you? What transformation is needed?)
  5. Now the hard part: Without any change in your core values, could you be migrated to the opposing position?

Basically, this is what the reactionaries of the left and right would call “flirting with” bad ideas, which I don’t accept. I don’t actually want to flirt with them, I want to make out with them, with tongue, and then be free to choose my mind a few minutes later and try another idea. We are talking about real intellectual promiscuity, here.

Transformation is the key. Because the good part is, you aren’t obligated to accept your new explanation. But it does open up a moment of compassion where insights are gleaned. And frankly, it will help you to understand the foundations of your own objection.  This ability seems increasingly rare.

This roleplay is a variant on what Daniel Dennet calls an “intuition pump”, a mental lever that allows you to grasp at bigger ideas. An example would be the concept of “percentage,” incredibly useful, and, speaking as the parent of a seven year old, actually conceptually difficult to grasp. But once you’ve got it, you can move quantities.

So, let’s play: As an example, Marriage equality.

My opposition is this. Generally speaking, I’m for it, or am indifferent enough to it that I find the idea of preventing anyone from having a marriage to be cruel and immoral. This comes from my sense of justice, of public law and of personal experience.

Additionally, my opposition is based on the fact that I know enough gay people to believe that the idea of choice in their sexuality wasn’t an option for all of them. Meaning, if someone is just born that way, withholding their access to happiness is immoral.

However, I’d probably still feel that way if I knew very few gay people. My basic stance would be “why prevent what brings someone joy and is basically without cost to deliver?”

Conversely, role-playing the opposite becomes “why allow it?”

What would I need to believe? Were I a religious person and believed the permission for marriage came down from divine authority, I could see the loss-aversion that would be raised by letting just ‘anyone’ have access to this sacrament of marriage, although in that case atheists would probably also need to get so-called ‘civil unions’. Letting people who lived in clear opposition to Church doctrine have it would indeed be galling– although atheists having it would probably be worse, so as a side-note, I’d probably be opposed to atheist marriage as well but feel that horse was well out of the barn.

This is, at base, the same argument for why a Priest may not perform the marriage of someone outside their own religion.

In that world, I would feel the dilution of my traditions to be something akin to a very slow emergency, and indeed, marriage equality, or gay marriage wouldn’t be the worst of it, but possibly the most symbolic of that slide, at this moment in history. So, there’s the first pillar: I would probably need to be religious. I don’t know any other basis for opposition that comes quite so well pre-packaged.

There seems to be a lot of latent loss-aversion baked into this, so that’s another pillar. I’d need to feel not that someone was gaining something, which I don’t think I’d care about, but that my team was losing something. My team, in this case, being the custodians of a fragile moral code being trampled on by the excesses of the day. What are we losing? The definition of something that matters. I’d have to see marriage as something sacred by definition, that not just anyone can have.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that I thought in many cases being Gay is not a choice like putting on pants, but an orientation. If I thought it was a choice, would that matter? Probably not too much by itself, but coupled with these other two notions, it does produce a position that I can see people defending, i.e. given that you can choose not to live this so-called lifestyle, why don’t you choose not to live that way when you know the prerequisites of your religion?

A few ideas are emerging, here. A big one is, it’s apparently pretty hard to hold these kind of beliefs without the underlying support of some kind of religious doctrine. Definitely possible, but religion is providing my most powerful (and predictable) lever. I only feel the loss aversion if I feel this ritual or sacrament ‘belongs’ to my tradition. This seems significant. It’s frankly hard to get worked-up over otherwise. I could say “it’s gross”, or “it was always done this way,” but it doesn’t seem like there’s much in the way of strong comeback to the assertion “well, we’re doing it this new way from now on.”  (It’s probably worth re-stating these are beliefs I don’t actually hold– that’s the point– but I can imagine someone holding them).  Another example: I have been told in certain countries like Russia and parts of Africa there is no distinction in common usage between ‘pedophile’ and ‘homosexual’.  This would also be a powerful lever to make someone against something, but this brings me to an exception: this is a total factual misapprehension.  The purpose here is to try to find entrance points into contrary arguments, not take on others’ factual inaccuracies, so while I understand how that would work to make me against the topic, it also ends the game right away– sure, I would be against this, if I were wrong and closed to correction.  Where would that end?  Again, it’s a lot more interesting based on principles as opposed to simple misunderstandings.

It seems the lesson here is not that Gay marriage is wrong, but certain religious beliefs carry some extra baggage that emerges in unexpected places. I could just drop them, or, drop the less useful parts.  On the other hand, making an argument to a religious person that does not address these misgivings would be to miss what they see as the point. Another important lesson.

That’s the game. If it feels Socratic, that’s because it basically is.

Radical compassion is possible, even in the face of ideas that you are hostile to. But one must remain open to change. I prefer to deliberately seek out ideas opposed to my own because, as the saying goes, “steel sharpens steel.” We are now in the 21st century. Good ideas, and bad ones, can come from anywhere. We have no license to be intellectually lazy, or to not pay attention. We are bombarded by information everyday. Choose wisely.


Also published on Medium.