3rd reflection on the Analects of Confucius
Previously I have talked about the necessity of being generous when reading or speaking with a person outside of your intellectual bubble – all the better to shake to the foundations your own assumptions (see on Debate). The question stands though – why should one engage in civility with a person who refuses even to acknowledge your position as a point from which to commence debate? What should one do when they see you as an enemy to be reduced rather than a potential intellectual companion? The question can even be turned on its head: is their positions which render their holders as no longer valid as potential partners for debate – are they instead so corrosive a threat to society, that lifeblood of learning, that they deserve either to at least be silenced, if not destroyed? To examine this question, I will analyse the relationship between communication, learning and respect – their necessity and the duty to protect them.
I will begin by at first reinforcing a point I examined many reflections ago (see on Definitions). Language, for me, is not a perfect method for the transmission of ideas. Unfortunately, it is the only method by which, at this stage, two humans can effectively communicate. As such, when we use language, we are using an imperfect set of symbols and rituals to refer to intelligible concepts and frameworks. When two, or more, people are consensually involved in the process of describing a mental object the individuals can meet in the mental middle ground – although it requires intellectual effort and generosity of thought. Failure to provide said reciprocal kindness is obvious enough in the ways that even the sharpest of minds can talk right past each other – each misconstruing their perceived opponent’s words in the worst possible manner.
If we start from a mindset that we are completely correct and that the purpose of our speech is to convince others of the correctness of our opinions, then we start off on the back foot. This position ensures we will be unable to comprehend the questions, queries, criticisms and counter-points of those who engage with us rather than simply submit to our will. The mind of the proselytiser can brook no equal – and in its jealous authority, it dooms itself to intellectual stultification. Thus, if we want to be able actually to escape the bondage of our own biases and prejudice, we need to be willing to respect those with whom we wish to engage.
If language is no more than an imperfectly defined codex of symbols – which each mind has a slightly differing interpretation – then this mutual respect is the foundation for dialectic. If we do not respect those with whom we discourse, then we may as well be talking to a wall for all the mutual good it will do us. In fact, it is even worse than conversing with a wall – for the righteous outrage eristic foments in the guts of the partisan calcifies opinion into hardened narrow-mindedness. Thus, if we are engaged with a person who is unwilling to respect us as another human, let alone as a partner in the journey to intellectual understanding, one could conclude that the only reasonable response is to withdraw from discourse. I would argue, however, that this is incompatible with the duty of the superior.
If we consider the duty to better one’s society (see on Superiority) then merely removing oneself from a situation of disrespect merely secedes the floor to the most evangelical, self-righteous and prejudiced. If there is any hint of the universal love which superiority demands from us, we should not scorn the narrow-minded as a ‘lost cause,’ treating them with the same disrespect which we abhor. Instead, we should see them as a challenge, one with whom we should test the best of our abilities and intentions to open their mind the possibility of other perspectives. In this quest, perhaps it is the tools of Socrates that will serve us best (see on Irony) rather than the biting admonishments of the figure in power.
Wang Wei, Fusheng Expounding the Classic, ca. 701-761