Friday 24 February 2023

Why we listen to bad ideas

Are there boundaries to what we are prepared to listen to, when we are coaching someone, or facilitating a meeting to generate and exchange ideas? 

I'll come back to that question, but think that there's another that sits alongside it, which I will address first. And that is, why do we listen to bad ideas?  And here, I mean both ideas that are erroneous, and those that are unethical.

The first point, of course, is that  we must be careful not to judge someone else's thinking as erroneous or unethical too quickly. But nonetheless, there are times when that is clearly the case. 

 A white (etc etc) man

Let us imagine that someone says ' I hate white, middle class, middle aged, Oxford educated men' (to take an example wholly at random, you understand, of a completely irrational point of view...). In my book that is both irrational and unethical; I deem it wrong (as well as muddle-headed) to hate a whole class of people, based on a few shared characteristics. That is a reasonable definition of prejudice. 

But if I challenge that statement, it doesn't take a genius to realise that the most likely reaction of the person I'm challenging is to defend it. That will mean summoning to mind all the reasons he or she can think of in support of it. Further, in the felt need to win the argument, and with the support of confirmation bias, new reasons may be manufactured in support of the reasonableness of the stance. The net result of which may be to strengthen the individual's conviction that this is a reasonable stance to take.

On the other hand, if I continue to listen, there is at least a possibility that the person will start to add nuance to the proposition: 'Well, not ALL...' and so on. And that represents a move in a more positive direction. Further, if the statement was made as a provocation, it will be clear that it has not had the desired result, and that in itself may prompt a slightly more reflective examination of the statement, and even a felt need to moderate it somewhat. 

And if given the space, attention, support and respect to continue to think about the statement, the individual may move a long way from it, and generate some real insight: perhaps that this view is based on a small sample size, consisting of one man who has behaved badly in the personal realm, and a number of public figures who share those characteristics, who are variously reprehensible; or that hate is bit of an overstatement and so on.

That is relatively clear in a one-to-one session; but what about a group? Is it reasonable to expect others to listen to people expressing bad ideas?

Here, I think, a lot depends on context, and on the contract you have with the group. If you have agreed that all views are welcome, it is hard to say later 'By all views, I mean, of course, all views that everyone is comfortable with.' That is highly problematic, not least for the reasons that Margaret Heffernan outlines in her excellent book, Wilful Blindness. This is the territory of group-think.

I think it is more fruitful to agree that if we are going to say all views are welcome, we must agree some other principles for the meeting. These will include a principle of equality: that we will ensure that all participants have an equal opportunity to contribute; and a principle of attention: that we will listen to everyone, seeking to understand their perspective. With these in place, and confident facilitation, then the person who voices the 'bad ideas' will be listened to but will also be obliged (morally and by peer pressure and a felt need to conform to the agreement made at the start of the meeting) to listen to others' thinking that is different from his or hers. And that, it seems to me, is the most likely way to achieve good outcomes in such a scenario.

But what about the risk of distress or harm to those exposed to hate speech? That is indeed a difficult question, and I sympathise with the instinct not to give a platform to such speech. But the risks of not doing so (in the contexts in which I work, at least) seem to me to be greater. A complete refusal to engage with those who hold different views fuels a toxic polarisation that makes any kind of nuanced discourse much more difficult, and reduces the likelihood of people moving beyond their initial bad ideas.

So are there any boundaries? There certainly are. And I will come back to this in a future post.

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