The Importance of Being Questioned

When I’m having a discussion of something about which I have some expertise, say biblical languages, it’s quite easy to get impressed with myself. After all, unlike the “average person” (actually, I don’t believe in average people, hence, the quotes, but that’s another subject*), If I am in doubt of a translation in scripture, or simply hear another person talk about a Greek or Hebrew word, I can actually go check. I may even know of various places that word is used.

*(I hate excessively long parenthetical remarks, don’t you?)

Fortunately for my swollen head, there is a remedy to this. I can go to a seminary campus, or join a group dedicated to biblical languages, where one often finds people who earn their living teaching or researching, and I’ll be put in my place fairly quickly. How? Because in that atmosphere people question my conclusions. I may not change them, but I have to think about them and about alternatives.

As salutary as reducing the size of my head might be, that is not the most important benefit. (Your mileage may vary.) The most important benefit is that it helps me not to get stuck on pet conclusions. I hear about potential difficulties with my conclusions from people who think differently, who know facts I may have missed, or who may just have ordered and prioritized data differently.

My think is challenged.

By responding positively to such a challenge, I may be able to improve my thinking, and (gasp) change my mind!

But here are some things to avoid:

  1. Getting offended. There is such a thing as offensive speech, but much of what is called offensive is simply something presented from a different perspective, which I’d rather not hear. Offense blocks learning.
  2. Doubling down. When presented with a contrary opinion, I need to examine the evidence and the logic and see if I need to change my mind. If not, no problem. Doubling down is a technique to emphasize my superior rightness over someone else.
  3. Dismissing. It doesn’t hurt to think about what someone else has said. It doesn’t hurt to tell the other person you’ll think about it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for every argument. What I can do is listen and then keep the ideas in mind over time.
  4. Equalizing. There are many things on which opinions are just fine, and it’s OK to say, “To each his or her own.” But on many topics, the different viewpoints are in no way equal.
  5. Despising. It’s easy to dismiss the other person because you already despised them. It’s also easy to despise them because of their opinion. Despising let’s you out of considering the opinions of such a worthless person. You are the only one to lose.
  6. Labeling. It’s easy to call someone a name, or group them with people you already reject. In politics we can call the other guy “just a Democrat” or “just a Republican” or whatever party labels apply in your country. We can also call someone a socialist or a capitalist (whichever is negative in our mind) in order to dismiss a particular idea. It’s not that labels are bad. Rather, all of language involves labeling in some way. The thing is that labeling needs to be accurate, and not dismissive.

I think the goal should be to be able to have strong opinions without despising the people who disagree. That’s not easy. The tendency is to either have strong opinions on something and dismiss your opponents, or to try to equalize all opinions. Either one can deprive you of valuable, constructive, necessary dialog.

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  1. Hence, the value of peer review of one’s studied conclusions. No one is capable of delivering the final word. Even Einstein’s conclusions had to be revised. And the history of history is one of revised conclusions. Thanks for the reminder, Henry.

    1. Speaking earnestly, it helps to actually *want* to have your thinking improved. As my newly reformulated old bromide goes, for the person whose primary purpose is doing right, criticism (or questioning (hey, some of us don’t mind parenthenticals)), even invalid criticism, is an asset. It can help you learn. For the person whose primary purpose is looking right,criticism (or questioning), even valid criticism, is an obstacle.

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