On Controversies and Learning

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I have friends and family who range from self-proclaimed anarchists to political activists working on healthcare reform. Like all Sonlighters, I have a strong desire to learn both sides of an argument. Too often, however, discussion becomes something else entirely. At that point, learning becomes less possible. I find John Newton's observations about controversy prove true:

Controversies ... provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

A friend of a friend was over. He, after "relaxing" by smoking some weed, wanted to talk politics. Knowing he pushed hard left, I decided to lean a little further right than normal. I like testing how much -- or little -- I know when I get to talk to someone who knows much more than me.

"What are taxes?" he asked, using it, I'm sure, as a barometer of how informed I was.

Not much informed, I offered, "The act of forcibly taking property from citizens."

He looked at me like I was an idiot and then proceeded to say something much to that effect.

"How would you define taxes, then?" I asked, very interested in his position. Not feeling any need to hold to my hastily constructed definition, I really wanted to uncover a nuance to public policy I had not yet encountered.

He hemmed and hawed. I pushed. He pirouetted a few more times, slinging belittling comments in my direction.

"You can keep insulting me if you like, or we can actually talk about the ideas," I finally said in frustration.

Still unwilling to be succinct, I finally got the impression he felt taxes were some kind of group contribution effort toward the "common good." Whatever that meant. He also tried to use Rome as an example of a good historical basis of taxation, which was ironic to me with the absurdly high rate of slavery and the fact that citizens of Rome were exempt from (all/many/some?) taxes. He told me I must be horribly misinformed. I checked Wikipedia after he left, just to make sure my Biblical knowledge was corroborated by at least one internet source (which cites a Catholic site).

With this experience still rather fresh in my mind, I immediately clicked a link a coworker sent me titled The best way to win an argument. The short version: Ask people to explain what they mean and how their position works in detail. I've encountered this in the past, such as the time I asked someone a simple question about evolution that completely changed the tone of the conversation. I feel that my conversation on taxes fits well with the observation that

it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you'll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realize that you don't truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other "I didn't really understand this until I had to teach it."

This is why I love conversations -- even with people who disagree with me. First, and foremost, I get a chance to test my own knowledge and refine my understanding. Second, I get to challenge someone else to defend their position (as I challenge myself). Third, my hope is that this exercise helps us both understand the world a little better.

That's what you do every day you teach your children or answer a question. You get to learn right along side your children. And by teaching, you're likely learning this material better than you did the first time around. The more your children ask, "Why?" ... the more you'll discover how much more you have the opportunity to learn yourself.

Ok ... but why?

And as you tackle multiple views on various topics -- with the help of your Instructor's Guide -- I believe you will discover that you can better explain the hows and whys of your position. This can be very edifying personally, even if you never have to try to convince someone else to see things your way.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Guardian

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