Tread the road not taken

Intellectual growth takes place when existing ideas are filled out, broadened and deepened with new information.

February 25, 2018 02:00 pm | Updated 02:00 pm IST

Comfort Zone - Success signpost drawn on a blackboard

Comfort Zone - Success signpost drawn on a blackboard

To say that we live in confusing times may seem like stating the obvious. But then, when has life ever not been confusing, or complex? It always seems simpler to understand when we look back, in hindsight. What makes our times somewhat more complicated is the sheer volume of information we can draw on, to help us understand what is going on. But the task of sifting through the information, and the different viewpoints available, makes it even more difficult to figure out what exactly is going on.

One response to this information overload is to become selective about what we expose ourselves to. We surround ourselves with people and sources we agree with, that do not tax our minds too much, or challenge our basic beliefs. Social media, to a large extent, help us do this, often without our being aware of it — the algorithms that structure our news feeds learn from our expressed preferences and prioritise opinions and ideas that reflect those preferences, leading to the creation of what have been called “echo chambers”. While the possibility of debates and disagreements does exist on these platforms, the range of viewpoints represented tends to be fairly narrow — and we can always simply block opinions we don’t like.

Of course, there is comfort in sticking to the known and narrow, to gain a sense of the world that does not challenge us too much. It allows us to go through our daily routine without too many surprises and uncertainties. But intellectual growth takes place only when we are unsettled, when what we know is dislodged to make space for new ideas — or at the very least, when existing ideas are filled out, broadened and deepened with new information.

Argument plays an important role in this process, and through our schooling, there’s an attempt to build this capacity to debate and discuss ideas. However, these are organised in a format that pushes us to focus on defending our position rather than truly engaging with ideas in order to learn from other points of view. So, we end up looking for ways to justify and support our views to “win” the argument, and listen to the other side only in order to identify weaknesses and gaps that we can then counter. Success in this exercise is associated with refusing to yield one’s own position. But in fact, real discussion — rather than debate — would mean that we have to be willing to admit that our ideas may not hold, and that we could actually benefit by considering new information and revising what we know. The purpose of argument is to expand our thinking, to gather new thoughts, not to fortify our minds with higher walls. Even worse, we can get quite militant about holding to our ideas, seeing it as a weakness to concede that the other party’s point may have some merit. So, such debates end up becoming fights over positions, rather than critical examination of ideas.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff remarks, “It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilisation.”

It might be time to open up the windows of those echo chambers, air out our ideas, and let some new ones in. Confusion is often a precondition for clarity!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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