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Accurate Understanding and Respectful Attitudes

Monday plus Tuesday:  Students in my high school learned valuable “lessons for life” from one of our favorite teachers.  In a society-and-government class, he explained ideas clearly in lectures, and we also debated the pros & cons for many positions on a wide range of issues.  He participated, was a skilled debater, and Monday he would argue persuasively for one position.  But the next day (or later in the same class) he would criticize this position, and present strong arguments for the other position(s).

Understanding and Respect:  After awhile, after hearing the strongly presented pros-and-cons for many positions on many issues in Monday-plus-Tuesday debates, we learned that if we want accurate understanding we should get the best information and arguments that all position-views can claim as support.  When we did this, so we understood more accurately and thoroughly, we usually recognized that even when we have valid reasons for preferring one view, people with other views also may have good reasons, both logical and ethical, for their choices, and this helped us develop respectful attitudes.*

 

But respect does not require agreement.  You can respect someone and their views, yet criticize their views, which you have logically evaluated based on evidence (asking “what evidence-and-logic supports each view?”) and values.  The intention of our teacher, and the conclusion of his students, was not a postmodern relativism.*  The goal was a rational evaluation of ideas during our search for truth, and for practical reality-based principles that can be used as a solid foundation (along with good values) for designing better life-strategies, for wise-and-effective thinking, decisions, and actions, as individuals and societies.

* In school and outside, we should aim for a logically appropriate humility with confidence that is not too little, not too much.   {Bertrand Russell, re: three kinds of error}  {the rationality-and-idiocy of postmodernism}  {using scientific reasoning in everyday life}  {empathy and kindness}

 

* In contrast with respectful attitudes, currently an unfortunately common tendency is hostile polarization, with some people & their groups promoting disrespect (or even bitter anger and rude contempt) for the “enemies” who disagree with their beloved position.  In coping with these disrespectful attitudes, accurate understanding is a productive influence, but it isn't enough.  Understanding is necessary but is not sufficient, because other factors also influence our thoughts and emotions, attitudes and actions.  For example, a person may be part of a group in which the social dynamics expect-and-reward a "rude contempt" for those who for any reason, including their views on issues that are considered especially important by the group, are defined as outsiders.

Good personal relationships with one or more people in another "group" can promote respect toward others in that group.  But unpleasant personal interactions can lead to situations with "bitter anger" in which forgiving would be useful but can be resisted.

Or sometimes an issue/position is considered to be (and may actually be) extremely important, which tends to decrease the probability that an opposing view will be considered supportable by "good reasons, both logical and ethical."

 

Instruction to encourage Understanding and Respect

In our schools, we can encourage accurate understanding and respectful attitudes by avoiding the indoctrination that occurs when students hear only Monday without Tuesday.  For a variety of issues, we can help students understand the main views accurately (without weak, distorted strawmen) by using activities that combine scientific reasoning with generalized critical thinking.

When this is done it may not be perceived by everyone as being NEUTRAL, due to both perception (because many people prefer a treatment-of-views that is biased in favor of their own view, and they consider a treatment to be neutral only if it's biased in the way they want)* and reality (because it's impossible to describe views in a way that is totally neutral).  But teachers can try to be FAIR by aiming for accurate descriptions, treating different perspectives with respect, and providing access to high-quality resources where skillful advocates for various views each describe their own views, explain their logical reasoning, and criticize other views.

* Unfortunately, students (and parents & others) who feel strongly about an issue/position can make life difficult for a teacher who tries to discuss issues fairly with minimal bias.  Therefore, a desire to avoid controversy is a rational reason to avoid this kind of “thinking skills” activity.  Sigh.   :<(     {and there are other reasons to avoid “thinking skills” instruction}   /   On the first day of class, and occasionally afterward, our teacher would describe “ground rules” for productive discussions.  His first rule was “don't be a nut” who would be angered by discussions that included "accurate descriptions... with respect" of views they didn't like.  This kind of anger was a cause for concern then, and is even more so now (especially in public schools) due to increases of hostile polarization in society.

 

Productive Communication:  Because "respect does not require agreement," for important issues we (all of us, not just students) should not be timid or mentally lazy by accepting an extreme postmodern relativism that says “evidence-and-logic doesn't matter much” so “you should not claim a particular position is better, you should claim only that you prefer it.”  Disagreeing with others, and clearly explaining why, should be socially acceptable.  But we can help make the process of agreeing-and-disagreeing more enjoyable & productive.  We can use productive communication — in an effort to achieve understanding and mutual respect — in a search for knowledge that is true and useful.