Saturday, October 19, 2013

To be Right, or to be Happy?

Or is that a wrong question?

There are arguments about facts, and there are arguments about opinions.

I consider that in an argument about a fact, to be right is important.  If a friend or a family member gets upset at discovering that he or she was wrong about a fact, then they need to grow up.  You don't need to be placate them by saying that they are right, but calling them an ignorant fool might also not be a great idea.  A little subtlety or diplomacy or offering some face-saving shows that while you care about the fact, you also care about how they feel.  Nobody likes to be proven wrong, and this simple realization can help those who are better informed become better informers.

However, if it is a matter of opinion, then the situation is far more complex.

The best course in my opinion, if you care about the other person, is to find out the reasons for their opinion.  Once the factors leading to that opinion are exposed, it is easier to admit that the opinion was a force majeure.  That is to say, that the person had no other choice but to hold that opinion.  Of course the involuntari-ness of the opinion was true in any case.  After all, the other person is, indisputably, holding an opinion because of some factors.   But because one holds a particular opinion, it is hard to even admit the validity or existence of a conflicting one.

Unless the other person is a habitual devil's advocate, their opinions are involuntary.  They don't really have a choice about it.

And once a conflicting opinion is understood to be involuntary, what's the point in raging against it?

In some cases, an almost universally acclaimed phenomenon (say, sunrise, or a super-hit film) can be disliked by someone who does not understand it, or who is impervious to its appeal, or whose level of aesthetic evolution is much above or below the average.  In such cases as well, trying to convince the other about the appeal of the phenomenon will not work.  Opinions, for the vast majority of humankind, are based on feelings.  And as most of us know, feelings cannot be easily transformed by argument.

No opinion is unfounded or comes out of a vacuum.  It is usually shaped by someone's experience, tastes, preferences or their mood at the time.  To disagree with the opinion might therefore be taken as an affront.  While a mature person will be able to take a difference of opinion in one's stride, an insecure one will consider any dissent as an insult.  A mature person will understand that levels of appreciation can differ, while an immature person will want to force others to conform to his/her own aesthetic opinions.

In many new-age communication paradigms, such as General Semantics or Nonviolent Communication, it is advised that one convey one's opinions to be subjective.

For example:

Instead of saying "What a lovely film", say, "I find it such a lovely film."
Instead of saying "This policy will never work,", say "I am afraid this policy will never work."
Instead of saying "She is horrible", say "I find it horrible to interact with her."
Instead of claiming "He is a good friend", say "I find him to be a good friend."

The point of these alternative ways of  voicing an opinion is that then one is not proclaiming that one's opinion is the only opinion possible.  One is not stating an opinion disguised as an objective fact.  By using subjective phrases, one makes it clear that this is how it seems to oneself and it is alright if the others' experiences differ.  It is to give the other space in a conversation.  By saying something objectively ("What a horrible person."), we invite a harsh argument if the other person's experience differs from us.  However, by saying "The way she has interacted with me has left a bad taste in my mouth" we are not proclaiming a universal truth about how "she" is with everybody else.

The paradigms go much further and advise one to be subjective even about facts such as color or shape of things (for example, instead of saying "That is a red box", "That box appears red to me, at present, from this angle, in this lighting.  And it appears to be a box to me, by the way."), but I consider that taking things too far.

Though to be fair, I have seen ladies in a department store argue over whether a dress is pink or red.  They liked the dress, they just disagreed which color it was.  So maybe one ought to put in subjective disclaimers in every sentence and only then everybody will be right.


But a good starting point is to claim subjectivity about one's aesthetic opinions.  Not only does it sound less threatening to a Scorsese-fan to hear "I didn't really like Taxi Driver, maybe I need to see it again to understand what the hype is all about," it might even be true.  One might discover on a re-view that there were things that one didn't appreciate at first.  Sometimes, reading about a work of art can help in its appreciation.  Especially in modern art, context is everything.  Without knowing the context of a toilet bowl placed in the middle of a museum room, it will just seem like a stunt.  (Again to be fair, sometimes modern art exhibits are stunts.)  Moreover, some things, like black coffee or milk tea, might just be acquired tastes.

As they say, Mulla Nasrudin came home drunk one night and as usual, his wife started screaming at him for spending all his money on drink.  He took out the half-empty bottle from his coat pocket and offered a sip to his wife.  She strongly resisted but he asked her to just taste it.  "It tastes horrible", she said.  Nasrudin exclaimed in glee: "See now? And you think I have fun getting drunk."

Jokes aside, it is possible to point out a factual wrong, to have different opinions, and still to have happiness and harmony in one's relationships.  A little sensitivity goes a long way, and while there may be bigger joys, the joy of being understood and affirmed is no small one.  We are all vulnerable, to varying degrees, about our opinions and knowledge.  When we are assured that the other person cares about our vulnerability as well as the matter under discussion, the relationships will become stronger, maturer and ... better-informed.


Harmanjit Singh said...

> Very interesting. Help me with this though - which party gets to decide whether the debate is about a fact or an opinion? There are those for whom man landing on the moon is an opinion and Honey + Ginger-Root curing a sore throat is a fact. When you add humans with different life influences to the equation, don't the lines get blurred real fast?

Well, there will always be people who think evolution is an opinion, creationism is a fact, and who will not accept a Lancet double-blind, multi-decade study showing that homeopathy is no better than placebo. In other words, people who do not go by the generally accepted rules of epistemology, science, statistics and deduction.

There are also people who, with perhaps some justification, doubt a prevalent theory or historical "fact" (such as the holocaust, or whether 9/11 was orchestrated by the CIA, etc.).

I am not sure we want to go into the depths of epistemology here ("how do we know what we know"), but in day-to-day life, I guess we just leave them with their opinions.

In case they want you to affirm their opinions or want to get into a fight, you can just send them to this blogpost.

Anonymous said...

You have already assumed yourself to be in the group with the facts.