There’s Something Below the Surface

How many times have you argued with someone and come to the conclusion: “we aren’t going to reach common ground. Let’s agree to disagree”?

I would contend that much of the time when we reach this conclusion, it’s because we are staying on the surface level of an argument. The surface level is what we build up to using building blocks in the form of our past experiences, our morals, and our understanding of truths about the world

Therefore, when we argue about any given topic, if we don’t get into the underlying principles that have led to our conclusions, there’s almost no chance that we can ever understand the other person’s opinion.

Let’s take a topic that is often hotly debated (but not too hotly, I’ve only got 1000 words at my disposal): vegetarianism.

Alan is a vegetarian.

Deanna is on the carnivore diet.

Alan makes the claim: “Everyone should be vegetarian.”

So let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that both of these people are reasonable. There are some unreasonable people in the world, who doggedly cling to their beliefs no matter what. But let’s put them aside for now and say Alan and Deanna are reasonables.

Even for these reasonables, if they debated the question as stated, and didn’t dive below the surface, this topic could quickly devolve into name calling and insults. Deanna could be called a murderer (she was actually a convicted murderer, but that is a red herring that doesn’t factor into this situation), Alan could be called weak and privileged.

But in discussing this point, let’s say that they eventually come down to two very basic, yet deep thoughts about the topic:

Alan:

  1. I believe that animals are distinct from plants and should not be killed for food;
  2. All of the nutrients that humans need to survive can be obtained from plants, they cannot be obtained by strictly eating meat;
  3. Factory farming is the only way we can currently meet the demands for meat in our world.

Deanna:

  1. Animals are lower life forms than humans and we should be able to use them as we see fit, including eating them exclusively;
  2. All of the nutrients that humans need to survive can be obtained from eating meat, they cannot be obtained by strictly eating vegetables;
  3. Animals can be raised sustainably to fill our current demand for meat in the world.

Let’s leave point number 1 for both Deanna and Alan for a moment.

Let’s assume points 2 and 3 could be researched and the actual truth could be determined. Because Deanna and Alan are reasonable, no matter which way the truth points them, they will accept it. So, points 2 and 3 will be researched, the answer is some third possibility that neither of them considered, and they abandon these points.

But number 1 needs further investigation. This isn’t something that can be easily researched. Is it religion or experience or something else that has led them to feel this way? We then journey even deeper into the topic of morals: what is the underlying basis for their morals. What are the differences and similarities? From there, each person can gain a better understanding of why the other person feels the way that he or she does and they can build back up to the surface issue again, perhaps modifying their initial stances based on improved understanding.

I think this is the only way to proceed within our divided society. We need to immediately abandon the assumption someone is racist or hateful or misogynistic because he or she feels a certain way, or says something as a one-off comment. Why does he feel that way? Why does she think that’s the case?

This is the only way we can possibly have debates that actually discuss issues, platforms where people are allowed to make mistakes, and a world where people actually think about why they feel a certain way. I can’t see us remaining this divided forever. It will come to an unfortunate breaking point unless we all do our parts in attempting to understand one another.

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