On arguing and listening

Sometimes, little linguistic observations reveal the deep shape of your thinking patterns. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my partner this morning, and said about the coming US election: ‘My friend X was saying the other day, no matter who wins the election, I think the US-China relationship will improve. It was fascinating to me how detached she seemed to be. As if, being Chinese, the US election was somewhat less existentially central to their world.’ My partner replied, interested ‘oh, why did they think the US-China relationship will improve?’ I experienced a very familiar sense of embarrassment. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘they didn’t say more, and I didn’t ask.’

People have often described me as open and accepting. Here is one of the manifestations. I often let people take positions without asking why, and I certainly don’t argue. My focus, when I listen, tends to be elsewhere.

Many people seem to like having positions, defending them, attacking the positions of others. The whole debating circus. I find all that about as dull as competitive sport. What interests me more is existential embodiment. Figuring out the personal, emotional, cultural details of why that person came to have that position at that time in history? What categories are they using to frame their position? What do those categories tell me about the world they inhabit? And what does all this tell me about the world that I inhabit, and the categories that shape my own thinking? For this, I must often be silent: if I started asking for justifications after every statement – or worse, if I was to start arguing – how would I ever hear enough that I can begin to sense how another person thinks, and how I think differently from them?

The result, however, is this regular sense of embarrassment when I discuss things with someone else, and realise, in the course of listening for categories, I took on someone else’s position, almost by default – repeated it, and find myself challenged on it. Often causing a measure of perplexity from the person I speak to, wondering how come I utter second-hand opinions, without knowing what reasoning goes behind them. Strength of your weaknesses, weaknesses of your strengths: the method I adopt to follow the thoughts of another person properly, comes with this regular blindspot.