Letter to the Editor: Inquiry

images-1Inquiry runs on diversity of mind. I am much more likely to mend the errors in my own thinking if I am freely exchanging ideas and reasons with people who see things differently. So in the interest of being good critical thinkers, or just reasonable people, we should positively value diversity of opinions, perspectives and ways of thinking.

But how about when someone finds another’s opinion hurtful? First, notice that we do lots of things with words besides just state what we think and why. Insults and derogatory speech are not just statements of someone’s point of view. These are designed to hurt and they do nothing to help us better understand each other or better grasp what is true or what is best. To the contrary, deliberately hurtful speech shuts down the flow of ideas and arguments.

The trickier terrain is where someone sincerely holds a view that others might find offensive. Some people really do believe that poor people are lazy, or that homosexuality is a choice. Must we accept that everyone has a right to their own opinion and that others are as free to voice theirs as I am to voice mine? In a sense, I’m OK with this. I wouldn’t want to take offense at someone else only for having an opinion I disagree with. But I might also be eager to share why I think the view is false. If you think it’s just fine to torture innocent kittens for fun, then I’d really like to hear what you think of some reasons against it that seem pretty clear to me.  I really doubt it, but I might be mistaken in thinking it’s wrong to torture innocent kittens for fun.

So I’d like to think that there is no reason to be offended at a mere opinion. What I do find offensive though, and it happens often enough, is when people ignore or otherwise evade thinking critically about objections to their opinions. Respecting and tolerating another’s point of view doesn’t require that I agree with it. But perhaps it does require that I be given some chance to understand how a reasonable person could hold that opinion. Being denied this can be unsettling. What’s offensive here is not the opinion but the refusal to think critically about the opinion.

It is possible to freely examine each other’s ideas and challenge each other’s reasoning in an environment of mutual respect. This is how we learn and overcome mistakes in our own thinking. Feeling safe to question ideas and examine arguments requires trusting that those around us care about good reasons. When that trust is breached, when I can’t count on us having the shared goal of getting closer to the truth, or at least to improved mutual understanding, that’s when I feel vulnerable. That’s where divisiveness starts. Sometimes people show disrespect through hurtful speech. Far more often, people show it through not listening and not thinking.

W. Russ Payne

Chair, Philosophy