The reason I mentioned the wonderful David Foster Wallace speech was that it illustrates perfectly how easily our minds can fool us with their fallacious imaginings. We can spend our lives feeding our subjective belief that we are at the centre of the world and everything revolves around us, or we can consider that perhaps this is just our own perception, and that other points of view are equally valid.
Similarly, in debates, particularly heated debates of the type that often spring up between different road users, we persist in behaving as though there is one immutable truth to which we have access, and that if we only argue hard enough, we can persuade others of the rightness of our position, when we might be better of recognising that they have their own position, which is just as objectively well- supported and evidenced as our own. I use the word objective ironically; each person’s view is as subjective as another’s. If we can pause to remember that our view is only our view, and that metaphorical or actual shouting at people that they are wrong! and we can prove it! is likely to achieve nothing more than a hardening of their stance, we might get further.
This is not, I know, easy to do. It takes a constant act of will to remind oneself, as David Foster Wallace has it, that This Is Water, and one can’t just do it once, one has to do it again and again. But the alternative is that you carry on as we are, shouting pointlessly into a maelstrom of noise made by people shouting back at us, and no progress is made. I wish I had something more profound to end on, but I don’t, really. But I have found this tour through all our old friends, cognitive dissonance, external and internal justification, fundamental attribution error, and the rest, highly illuminating, and I hope you’ve found something interesting in it too.
For my part, I’ll try to remember it next time somebody really gets up my nose. I’ve found that if someone’s driving me nuts, maybe on public transport or something, it really helps to smile at them. Maybe because just act of smiling at someone who’s really annoying you rather than biting their head off is in itself a small favour, I find myself more kindly disposed towards them. So next time someone does something that really really pisses me off, and I’m absolutely convinced that not just their actions but their entire existence is an offence to decent humanity, and I’m just about to tell them so in no uncertain terms, I hope I can remember: pause. Draw a deep breath, remind yourself that This Is Water, and smile at them. Yes, like you mean it. And then ask them if they’d like to know about Benjamin Franklin.