111: Pascal’s Sides (Blaise Pascal)

                “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true; admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. No one is offended at not seeing everything […].” -Blaise Pascal, Pensées

                I’ve been wrong a lot. My favorite example, for sheer style, was an argument in college. I’d heard people talk about a passage in the Torah, so I repeated as fact the little I could remember. This guy said, “That’s not right at all.” He quoted the Hebrew in question (which I couldn’t do), translated the Hebrew (which I couldn’t do), discussed the difficulty in translating a few of the key words (which I–you get it), mentioned some of the noteworthy commentaries written on that passage, and told me I was an idiot. Six months later I was ready to admire how completely he demolished me. We actually became friends. At the time, in front of the people watching, I got defensive.
                I’m not proud of that. I acted like an insecure, posturing jerk, probably because part of me is an insecure posturing jerk. I try to acknowledge that part and recognize him, so he doesn’t get the mic too often. He does help me understand some things. I’ve heard of psych research suggesting that, if you want to change someone’s mind, presenting them with facts that go against their foundational beliefs usually doesn’t work. In fact, it usually makes them cling to ‘their side’ even more. It’s easy to feel like people who do that must be morons, madmen, or egomaniacs, until I remember that I’ve done the same thing…
                The first lesson here we can learn from The Oatmeal: practice getting less defensive. The second lesson, I think, comes from Pascal. If you want to convince someone (he says), don’t start by telling them they’re wrong. Start by looking at the issue from their side. If they’re convinced they’re right, they’re probably right about something. Find that something, down in the roots of their perspective, and point it out to them. Tell them it’s important. Tell them they’re right. Then–then–there’s an opening for you to say, “But what do you think of this other side.”
                In that Oatmeal article, I looked at some arguments I had with my father about gun control. They got loud. They got angry. They didn’t get anywhere. Looking back, I realize that I missed what was important to him. In his mind, our conversation was about individual responsibility. In my mind, our conversation was about the safety of a community. Those are both important, but instead of seeing the roots of each other’s argument, we kept hitting each other with the branches.
If you start with, “You’re wrong,” most of us feel like you’re attacking the ideal we hold dear. Responsibility. Safety. Honor. Big things like that, big things we’ll rush to defend. If you start with, “Here, you’re right,” then you give our ideal its moment. After that, I’m ready to consider that I might have missed something else. Another conflicting ideal, maybe. (Of course freedom of speech is important; not yelling “fire” in that infamous crowded theater is important, too). I might have gotten the roots right, but twisted around the plant above them. I might’ve gotten stuck on one idea without noticing some others. All of us have seen something. None of us have seen everything.
                So if you want to to change someone’s mind, Pascal reminds us, start by looking for how they’re right.

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