“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” – Dale Carnegie
So it has now come to this. I think I have finally hit a wall. One of my favorite pastimes has finally started to play itself out…or at least now waits patiently in the background until I muster the energy and patience to engage.
I’m talking about talking. Or, more specifically, discussing. Free exchange of ideas and opinions. And, yes, OK, that also includes debating, and heck, even arguing. This post is about how infusing debate with logic and reason has become a consistently unsatisfying enterprise. Because, doing so doesn’t help you win in situations where good sense is called for…or even gain some much-needed ground, necessarily.
And although I will cite mostly personal experiences, I will later share some related thoughts about the workplace, so you’ll see the relevancy there. Stay tuned for that.
I like talking, in all of its forms. I even like the listening part. This two-way exchange creates learning, understanding and enlightenment – which are all experiences that help me evolve as a human being. For similar reasons, I have always embraced conflict, which I have routinely characterized in a positive way; I see conflict as a healthy agent of progress for those of us who can navigate through differing points of view to settle someplace acceptable.
But now, more and more, I find myself exiting discussions wishing I had never entered them. I feel like discussions habitually become debates. And debates take on the character of arguments and these arguments have no satiating resolution. Am I just aging and getting all crotchety? Do I simply enjoy for its own sake the practice of pushing people’s buttons? (OK, well, maybe a little…but let that not be a distraction…)
To find the source of my disappointment I look to the nature of conversation among humans. Our style involves a delicious combination of thoughts and feelings….of reason and emotion. We are sophisticated across both dimensions, thus permitting a host of experiences and outcomes. Interestingly, many conversations take place along a plane of logic and reason…or at least they appear that way to an outside observer. We do need reason to cause resolution, for raw emotion unto itself typically creates no outcome.
I believe our ability to debate by deploying logic and reason remains intact. I’m now reading articles such as this one in Psychology Today and this other one from The New Yorker which suggest that we are becoming not only a little dumb but outright anti-intellectual. As left-leaning as I can be, I’m not drawing exactly the same conclusions although my base observations are similar.
No, I’m in a different place. I think the root issue is that, as a society, we are unleashing much more emotion than we are logic. Simple as that. We certainly have the ability to be rational, but our emotional selves are flourishing in both beneficial and counter-productive ways – so much so that they overpower our attempts to be convincing on that plane of reason as we talk…and then debate…and then argue.
Emotions encompass many things. They go beyond raw materials such as passion, hurt, anger, love, shame and excitement; they also include intuition, instinct, bias, dreams, desires, insecurities, hidden agendas and a number of other elements that have both positive and negative connotation. Emotions are as profound as they are powerful.
Yet, while we are quick to showcase our rational side, we seem possessed by our emotions at our core. We suppress them in most incidents except those in which we are overcome. Because society associates emotion with weakness while assigning greater value to reason, we rarely acknowledge our feelings openly. We prefer instead to discreetly manage them beneath the surface over the course of a debate. This troublesome phenomenon is what complicates debates and arguments; the dodge and parry of reason interrupted by incoming and random fireballs of emotion.
There are many everyday examples that show how we operate. Watch a teenager negotiate with a parent to have a curfew extended or to borrow the family car. Teenagers have an uncanny ability to summon their passions (read, hormones) in a way that makes them sound convincing while they argue that black is white. They position themselves as logical yet they make no sense.
There are several other topics that naturally capture emotions in a way that makes it almost impossible to change a point of view. Politics and religion are two (and I’m still at my age naïve enough to think that most enjoy debates on these topics as much as I do, so I’m really not helping myself). Gun ownership is another big one. In his live standup show entitled BARE (which is also available on YouTube but you didn’t hear that from me), Australian comedian Jim Jeffries dismantles every known argument in favor of gun ownership. It’s objective, hilarious and viciously NSFW – another reason I’m choosing not to link to it from this very PG blog. Now I’m not here to take a position on either side but I’m confident Jim’s insights would not a change the stance of a single person who owns a gun. Why? Because I believe that the desire to own a gun is supported by not only practical but emotional reasons, one of which as Jim points out as being “I like guns”. Full stop. Through my personal experiences I have uncovered other sensitive factors, but I’ll choose not to articulate them here because they are a smidge controversial. Moving on…
So, while you can throw all the logic you want at a subject, you’ll get nowhere because our feelings about a subject matter act like pillars wedged in concrete. Nuthin’s gonna budge.
I have a friend who is an elite, world-level athlete. She takes a number of hits in social media over how she expresses some of the style elements of her sport. She has fought back, posting pictures of her technique next to images of her closest rivals showing how her style points are similar or even better than those of her beloved competitors. I’m trying to find a nice way to tell her not to waste her time. These style specifics are merely ‘the reason given’; they mask the underlying truth that some of the fans just don’t like her….and that will never change. It’s a visceral thing, so stop playing the logic game; it’s all a decoy.
So if these logic decoys have been in existence forever, really, what has changed so that I’m now all wound up? Like I said, our emotional selves are intensifying, precipitated by the following societal factors that I read about and experience on the regular:
- Truth is messy and we’re already living in a world full of people who feel overwhelmed. We fill up our days and nights with social, administrative and parental action items to the extent that are all now looking for the path of least resistance just to make it through. If someone presents us with reason, we may need to rethink our position, challenge our beliefs, change course, consider new options. No, no time for that. Status quo is more convenient. So now, what we want more than enlightenment is just to be right. That drive has become more important than seeking the truth
- The approach to news has become less about informing and more about exposing. Media’s thirst for ratings-driving scandal is impacting our personal experiences; our tendency now is to become alarmed and then defensive when facts or insights about ourselves and our thoughts are revealed.
- Partly as a result of the above, icons are falling all around us. We no longer trust teachers, the police, clergy, politicians, news personalities or even our neighbors to tell us the truth. We are all too inclined to be suspicious or just plain reject direction or insight from traditional authorities. Sadly, new authorities have not emerged as replacements, leaving our own convictions to be the most trusted compass. We are now digging in with our opinions more deeply
- Digital courage; we now know social and new media stimulates more participation yes, but also causes us to remove the filters that mask our emotions…and good judgment. Scary combination that has caused bullying and other venomous phenomenon to proliferate
- We seem more easily offended, as if we take greater comfort in having the upper hand or being owed
One of the more topical and passionate debates these days is police brutality. Again I’m not here to take sides, but only to recognize that here IS another side, which I’m closer to having had family members who are police officers. There are a host of factors contributing to the challenges we’re seeing today but I will say this. I heard horror stories from cops over the past ten years of the abuse they take over the course of making an arrest. Somewhere, somehow we have decided that resisting arrest is a viable option. Before you start to talk about how the police are causing this I’ll give you another simpler example. Transit workers in Toronto. They have all recently been put behind glass, including on buses. Why? The number of escalating cases of abuse they suffer when stopping a rider for not paying full fare. Somehow, today, when we are wrong, we have the gall to feel wronged. It’s a two-way issue that concerns me a lot, not gonna lie.(Oh hey PS I have a default disdain for those who like to point fingers, so keep that in mind if you choose to comment. I have to work to keep my tendencies in check!)
Even in minor situations I come upon social dynamics that are equally telling. Something happened today that I witnessed in between editing sessions for this post. I visit and post occasionally in a discussion forum on a special interest topic (subject matter is irrelevant but trust me, it’s not jaw-dropping!). Just today, regular Poster A publicly asked regular Poster B a benign, information-based question. Poster B replied that poster A asked the same question several months ago and then pasted the reply. Quite factual. Poster A’s retort: “you didn’t need to be so snarky about it”.
OK, sure, small thing, but it tells us a lot about where we are. I get that there’s a byproduct of Poster B’s comment, and that is pointing out Poster A’s oversight. Still, no name calling, no editorial comments. Very even and straightforward, but to me, it was worth mentioning that this is a repeat question from the same person. Had I been Poster A, I would have digitally smacked my forehead and thanked B for their patience in dealing with me. But nope, offended. And this isn’t even within the context of a heated topic…just a simple, breezy Q&A. It’s the world we now live in. We’ll go down swinging before owning up to even a minor oversight.
It’s a shame that we no longer have communities raising our children. When I was a kid and I misbehaved in front of a teacher or neighbor, I was called out and my parents addressed it like ASAP. Now we run the risk that a parent might take it as a peer pointing out flaws in their child—as if the parenting skills are lacking – and so the need to correct the child is distracted by a defensive (and, to me, insecure) parent. There is a whole parallel language that teachers now have to learn in order to give feedback to parents. Sure, many parents still do have hunger for a direct evaluation but with others, even the most casual choice of words of feedback can be inflammatory, causing the criticism to backfire onto them.
With all this I’m left wondering where is the audience for enlightenment or controlled debate? I thought it was in places like social media message boards or blog post comments. Nuh uh. We post not to engage in meaningful dialogue but to measure our likes and shares. I lent diplomatic insight via comments to a number of blog and linkedIn articles only to have my comments deleted. I misjudged my role, which should have been to massage the self-esteem of the writer. I was hoping academia would be the petrie dish for ideation and true objective learning but my contemporaries in the business speak mostly of single-minded unwavering agendas upon which entire teaching careers are built at the post-secondary level.
I feel as if reason is falling on deaf ears nowadays as there is far too much noise in the communication paradigm. Political commentators such as Bill Maher seek to instigate dialogue through pointed opinion, yet even his show’s provocative catchphrase “…but I’m not wrong” reads almost like a rhetorical question. It rings silent, because to answer is to admit the truth. We are now less and less about that. Somehow, to acknowledge another’s great argument makes us feel weak and disadvantaged; we have less fortitude to handle that now as we did in the past, it seems.
For me, logic and facts and reason are my food. I’m not unemotional but I work earnestly to neutralize my feelings for the sake of uncovering insight and truth. (I attribute at least some of this to my Eastern Euro background) As I have said in my About this Blog section, I’m not here to metric my visits. I’m more passive in my approach to this project and welcome feedback, debate and shared experiences. So, have at it – shoot me down! Just don’t do it in a way that validates this whole article. Where I’m hoping to generate passionate counter-argument I similarly dread pointless and personalized hatred. Fingers crossed.
Let’s pause for a sec to survey similar experiences in the workplace. One of the bigger frustrations of young marketers comes from exec decision making that seems short sighted or sub-optimal. The best apparent option is not always chosen. There are many reasons for this but the two biggest factors are priorities and emotions.
An example of priority is the company financial cycle. Although acting for the sake of longer term interests is an admirable approach, the fact remains that execs are expected to deliver the number every quarter. You’re talking about people’s careers here. As for emotions, there are biases and files that exist between individuals that will factor in and this will not be transparent to you. But, often times, some senior people just have passion for a certain idea or course of action. Also, execs respond to team members with conviction; the belief is that passion is a tool to inspire, motivate and collaborate. So yes, sometimes the great talker is celebrated over the superior thinker. Don’t discount the value of emotion to cause an outcome. After all, we’re human.
You would do well to be conscious of the ‘files’ (as we used to call them) that live in people’s heads when you do business. Files can take the form of bias, personal motivations or hidden agendas. It’s a tricky endeavor because you have to resist the temptation to be suspicious of everyone because that tendency until it self can cause you problems. But, if you’re bringing rational ideas to the table and you’re not getting traction, just beware that other issues could be at play that are not obvious.
So for nerdy intellectuals like us, being right or being sensible when a situation calls for it is in fact a curse. I understand that being right can be a subjective concept, so it’s not always a matter of being right or wrong; being ‘right’ can also in my world simply be about forming thoughts out of logic and reason.
We may not be thanked. We may not win. We may not get that promotion. We may not influence new thinking. But we can’t let all that eat us up. We have to adapt by finding new ways to get through to people. Failing that, we have to above all be patient. As I mention in this blog post on nuggets of wisdom, there is a time and a place for good sense; you just have to teach yourself to sit tight and wait for that special moment when the situation presents itself and minds are open enough to let your thoughts in. It will come.
Patience: it is indeed a virtue. And we’ll need much, much more of it to get by. Patience is also one of the more awesome emotions along with compassion and tolerance that I am seeing emerge in many segments of society. So while I’m clearly perturbed by only our passing interest in reason and truth, I’m similarly energized by these more constructive emotions we’re doing a better job at nurturing. The trick is to learn to engage them in the toughest of situations; that’s where we still need work. Get that part right and you have what they call real wisdom.
Let me close by sharing one last anecdote from my social media exploits.
A friend from high school recently ranted on facebook about the playoff ticket policies of a favorite sports team and how the evil league commissioner (who is disliked in general by many) was behind it. Having worked directly with the league for years, I seized the opportunity to first validate her frustrations but then gently point out that the commissioner’s office has no influence or authority over team ticket policies. The reply was instant:
“Larry, sometimes people don’t want to have a logical conversation. They just wanna believe what they wanna believe…..Just sayin”
Finally. Someone actually came out and said it. And now, I finally understand.
1. Coming from a different angle, US politics/Trump. This article from May 2016 in the Washington Post is eye opening. The main thrust is about how Trump is a master strategist and influencer who understands first and foremost that people are irrational. Once you understand that you can use emotion to your advantage. And that’s what winning political battles is about; you need to be a psychologist first, or have that on your team. People will vote for you for reasons they articulate as rational…yet, there is little reason at play. It’s all just a movie that plays in people’s heads, born out of emotion and replayed to them as fact. Moral of the story: this is why you don’t discuss politics with people; it’s rarely a fact-based discussion.
2. This article about the role emotions play in decision making. Hint: we can’t make decisions based on logic alone; emotions must factor in.
3. This one is fantastic; the 5 logical fallacies that cause us to be misguided. Talks about irrational notions at play such as ‘everyone is out to get us’ and how we have a double standard. For example, we champion income redistribution so lower tiers can have a better life; corporate CEOs should hand over money to lower socio-economic tiers. Yet when we compare our lifesyle and resources to the other 8 billion people in the world, we find that almost all Americans are in the top 1% of lifestyle. In theory, almost all of us should be cutting checks to transfer our relative high wealth to help the 99%. Such a thought causes enormous backlash.