Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On Debates and Context (updated)

The most recent news on ISIS and their barbaric ways [1] seem to have everyone in a fury. What to make of this group and what seems to be their nihilistic ways, or perhaps their self-defeating ways? Are they truly that despicable? Is it merely a role of propaganda to make them seem this bad? George Packer over at the New Yorker seems to have one take: that it is a death cult bent on some sort of purification. In other words, a rabid dog that needs to be put down.

 In many ways, ISIS seems to be much like the Munster city state, the Nazis, & the Khmer Rouge . Yet whenever I, an Iraq War veteran, tell people that there shouldn't be a rush to bomb that we need to think harder upon the causes thereof, they ask if I'm on the other side. Interesting. The only thing I see here is a will to be much too easily goaded into a fight. That is surely what ISIS wants Jordan and other Sunni-dominant countries to do: send troops. One should note the hesitance to send all but fighter pilots into this war on the part of Sunni nations. I think, and I'm sure many others do, that they understand troops on the ground would be playing into ISIS hands.

To go back to being accused by anonymous interneters, as well as friends. of being on the side of so heinous a group: I can only think that they are being overtaken by emotion. What else can one say about such tribal reactions? I do know this: that for all ISIS is doing, for all the war crimes they are carrying out, when people here are telling us not to sit and have a rational discussion, that to do so aids the enemy, I know that we truly need that rational discussion.

And I'm still wondering if—even if we were to wipe out ISIS with some magic "kill only the bad guys" bomb—people will stop to think about what it is that caused it to grow in the first place. This, its causes, goes deep. And we must consider this aspect or else we'll face the same thing all over again. In fact, if we don't think of methods other than violence, we won't achieve anything different. So wanting to label ISIS (there isn't much information coming from that area except from ISIS' marketing branch) without information is foolish. When I bothered to watch ISIS in a video, they were obsessed with justice. Given what has happened there, it doesn't seem to far fetched. 

So that brings me to context when used in debates. It is well known that the human mind can only take into account a handful of things. When we debate it usually helps to focus on the subject at hand, as time constraints don't allow for full context. Thus, when people like me try to add context to any situation, we are called out for changing the subject. 

Yet for those who only want to look at one situation in a vacuum (as if such things exist), then that is an effort to take out history to make sure no one can see the situation for what it is. Only a child comes to the world without history. We then try to teach them history. Let's not move away from that. Keep teaching and adding context.



Update Feb2015:  First, this is my attempt to define what debate is and how we should strive to minimize heuristics and gut reactions. After all, I too make this mistake, and I have to forcibly apply frontal lobe thinking  to said subject matter.

I would like to say that when it comes to geo-politics, I'm much better about adding context. Not so for domestic politics. I tend to dismiss that which I hate. Say it comes from the Tea Party and it's against Obama (not always, but a lot of times) I'll assume it's baseless and not even look into it. So the context, in this respect, becomes noise and is lost.

What to do in such a situation? When I moved out of the south, there were many strawmen that I was aware of and didn't want to hear anymore. Thus when cries came up about Obama's birth certificate, I ignored them as ignorant. I still think that was a correct decision.

So what does one do when discerning between context and noise? Look at the above situation and you'll see that there's something about the noise versus context that people have to deal with on a daily basis. Given the limited capacity of one's brain, one cannot take all context (and noise masquerading as context) into account. [2]

Well, to cut through the noise [3], one must find a good source (or person to debate with). This is hard. Very few sources have impeccable credentials of not being wrong, or not allowing their biases to muddy the truth. This leads us to looking for prophets, especially these days when the media is so fragmented, and opinions are hard to discern. But we must find them. And when something does not seem right, when that gut feeling has been honed with knowledge, one must be able to take the time to take in different evidence and move from there.

I would say that academic evidence tends to be good. But even peer-reviewed journals aren't perfect. So take in context as best as you can. One thing we should not do is reject context because it flies in the face of what we want. This does not mean, if it flies in the face of evidence, for this is when we must cut off the noise. Note, I said evidence, not what you've been told, or what you think. Though I admit that this can be very hard to completely understand or even separate.

The best example that I can give is personal. I was a die hard conservative, and I made a switch from that to something more liberal (at least when talking about the matter of war, or geo-politics). The thing that got me to stop, think, read other books (opposing books, even) on the matter, was having the evidence of my experience counter that of the leading "prophets" of conservatism. And so it goes.

I started to read books and from then on I changed my mind with the evidence available. There is surely much to be discussed/debated with even this aspect of context. After all, what books, and at what level? I would say consider books that have been, on some level, peer-reviewed.

And in the end, one should always use whatever knowledge and experience they have to judge. This is not always sufficient, as I can attest to. Some times, growing up, we simply place our faith on those authority figures around us. It's not easy to usurp them. Not on our own. But we must try (that's why having a diversity in education, as well as in one's reading list, as well as in one's news list, are of paramount importance).

Does this make sense? We're talking about massive amounts of information and how to read it is hard. But using critical reading skills is required. Be skeptical about most everything that you read. See how many people agree with such matters. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

And what when context is propaganda that is meant to obfuscate? After all, it has been shown that on internet comments, if the first one is contrary to the article, people will believe it on some level, thus when someone does it they are influencing the debate, even if they have no evidence for their views (see climate change as well as the evolution debate). Unfortunately, we easily believe that which we read. Perhaps we could change this during our children's education? Can we? More critical thinking and reading school programs aside, what should the rest of us do?

I'm afraid I don't have an answer for this. Indeed much noise and propaganda is out there not to convert people, but to at least muddy the waters on an otherwise clear issue. So we must be defensive about it, but we cannot be too defensive such that we don't listen to the real evidence that can allow us a clearer view into our world.

There is another matter on this: that any ideology worth its salt will have prepared for any and all opposing arguments. Some even have an outright rejection of other ideas by instilling in us a fear or a hatred for the "other" idea. This is not the purview of cults alone, whatever you may think. In groups of people who think themselves as progressive I have seen the quick rejection of an idea.

Let's be honest, this is an instinct. For when I see this happen, I also see people who, in said group, seem to come together more, group cohesion goes up, and bonds are made (an inherent weakness with most debates amongst friends, even the contentious ones). There is an unwritten and unsaid understanding and not much will take that away. Why destroy that with forced thought and most likely create tension, in addition to be being labelled either anti-social or at best a contrarian?

Well, it must happen if the debate is something more than a feel good exercise. One must simply have the discipline for it, because the end product is a better world. So add context when needed. Add it when it's hard and the group is especially primed to simply parrot each other and add nothing to that debate. Add it when they're talking past each other. So please, allow context to come through, but never let it come through unhindered.

I will, of course, write more on the matter of debates soon.

Update 28May2015: Here we go with a possible list on how to debate properly:
1) Define what you're debating and what the points of contention and agreement are (what is being framed)
2) Throw out all preconceived notions and only look at the evidence.
3) Make sure all evidence is based on something solid (peer-reviewed articles etc)
4) Look to what evidence is needed to clear up any issues. Will further study be needed? More experiments?


This will require stifling some aspects of debate. But it will make for better understanding. 

[1] Apparently some odd effort to mimic aspects of bombing itself. For let's not forget that we burn plenty of people then have rubble dropped upon them. Just because we have the tech to be, mostly, away from it, doesn't mean anything to people suffering.

Update May2015: Imagine this: that a man is about to be put to death via death by burning, with rubble on top. What do you imagine his choice would be if we asked him would he rather be done through a cage, or through an incendiary bomb (or any other kind of bomb) dropped by someone afar? What would your choice be?

[2]I once argued with a friend of mine who said I should take every opinion I hear seriously, and only when I can take in all the facts can I make a decision for myself. This is true. In theory. In theory, communism works. In other words, I held this view when I was young and tried to adhere to it. I was more well read about many subjects than most of my peers, I dare say, and still I ended up being wrong (some people's heuristics ended up trumping my 'evidence', so take from that what you must). How is that? There is limited time, and I, simply, ended up taking in the wrong information. This is part of the reason why I'm so adamant about figuring out the best way to read the news, with its multiple platforms and so forth.

What can I take from this? That when people (me included, at times) decide to cut out context, they are, in fact, being defensive and even smart, for there is much context that is put out there to be noise (the propaganda issue) and one must live one's life, so it isn't feasible to go through all of it. What's a human to do (and this goes for all levels, one can only truly be an expert in one very niche subject in this life, and even then, I'm sure you aren't absorbing all the information available)?

[3] Not only is there noise of people simply speaking about things for which they know nothing about, but there is the more mendacious noise put out there by those who have another agenda all together to put out. So for most any issue that matters (that has money tied to it) there will be someone willing to pay another person to push what will benefit them (which they may very well believe as true or as helpful for the world).

Thoughts?




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