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The other day, Max and I were discussing the idea of a universal basic income. It was a pretty value-neutral conversation; we were merely exploring the potential impacts of various UBI proposals. While Max doesn’t identify as a socialist (“I realized there’s a lot of detail involved here and I don’t understand it all,” he said recently, being that kind of analytic person), he’s inclined positively toward the values and ideas I tend to bring up. So it caught me by surprise when he said at the end of our conversation, “I worry that I’ll say something wrong and incite your sense of justice.”
Oh dear. That’s certainly not a feeling I want to engender.
So I was inspired to write this post. As I hammer out this draft, I have just asked Max, who is sitting across the room, if he could give me some constructive criticism on anything I’ve been doing that led him to such concerns. He thought for a moment and said that it wasn’t anything I had actually done; it was more that my Midwestern niceness had caused some abrasion of his East Coast ways.
Well, I’m relieved to hear that I haven’t been unintentionally cowing Maxwell into faux fellow travelerhood. But it makes me wonder if reluctance to say something that might somehow be “wrong” in my various circles of discourse might be more widespread. Perhaps it even encompasses readers of this blog. You guys do, after all, repeatedly show yourselves to be a highly civilized bunch, curious and erudite but courteous and respectful.
And this is in the face of my regular references to political ideas that might not seem to be mainstream: most significantly, that amorphous abstraction that I refer to as socialism. It’s more morphous to me, of course, but I know I haven’t really given details here. Defining the S-word a subject for another post (it’s in my pile of drafts); for today, it will suffice to leave it vague and let you attach whatever positive or negative sentiment to it that you will.
So given that this isn’t expressly a political blog aimed at like-minded individuals, I feel compelled to address any potential collisions between charged ideas (political or otherwise) and a norm of Midwestern manners.
Max and I recently had a chance to visit with one of his buddies. It was at a wedding, and afterward, a group had gathered and ended up discussing politics. This friend mentioned that he’s a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren, but that given certain details about the context of the Senate vote, he had decided to vote for her opponent. He went on to explain his reasoning. And you know what? That reasoning made sense to me. I learned something valuable from considering it. I wouldn’t have acted in accordance with it because I have a different short-to-medium term goal, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that his long-term goal is diametrically opposed to mine. (And frankly, I learned something about how to further my own goals at the same time. Altruistic intellectual self-sacrifice is not required, though if one is open to learning, one will from time to time hear something that makes one adjust one’s own views.)
The point is, my understanding of the world is richer for this discussion. And so it’s troubling to me that this friend felt compelled to preface his remarks in such a way that suggested he thought the entire room (I think everyone else present had voted for Bernie in the primary) was about to jump on him.
I’m not well read in the classics, but Max is. So I got pretty excited about a set of three conditions that he once relayed to me as necessities for the pursuit of truth through discourse. (Max informs me this is from Plato, Gorgias 487a-b.) I haven’t done more than cursory reading on what this meant to the ancient Greeks, so I may be getting some of the historical nuance wrong, but I know that the mere combination of these terms as we understand them in English today are excellent guidelines for this blog. The three principles are episteme, Knowledge; eunoia, Good Will; and parrhesia, Fearless Speech.
Oh, wait, Max just looked the passage up for me. I will share. This is, of course, Socrates speaking:
For I conceive that whoever would sufficiently test a soul as to rectitude of life or the reverse should go to work with three things which are all in your possession—knowledge, goodwill, and frankness. I meet with many people who are unable to test me, because they are not wise as you are; while others, those wise, are unwilling to tell me the truth, because they do not care for me as you do; and our two visitors here, Gorgias and Polus, though wise and friendly to me, are more lacking in frankness and inclined to bashfulness than they should be. . .
Coming back to the twenty first century, and putting it in my own words: if you’ve some claim to know what you’re talking about (or even if you merely know the limits of your knowledge), and you can trust that your conversation partner is not trying to troll you for kicks, but honestly shares your goal of furthering truth and goodness—then speak freely, so that this truth can be discovered and this goodness can most quickly be advanced.
It’s worth noting that there are other circumstances where a slightly different approach might be more suitable. For instance, rhetoric—which is less about pursuit of objective Truth and more about moving people through emotion in pursuit of some subjective goal—is a valuable tool, though it too can go very wrong without eunoia and episteme on the part of those wielding it. Or take diplomacy: in some ways, this is the opposite of discourse, but it serves a noble purpose in its place. Also, in general day-to-day living, I am a fan of the Buddhist concept of right speech, which the Pali Canon defines as abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter; even a glance at these without studying the Pali Canon (which I have not beyond a brief college course back in 2002), suggests that those values are also ripe with eunoia.
But what of parrhesia? That sticky, troublesome frankness? Max has informed me that while it can be defined as “free speech,” it also has another sense that is closer to just being an obnoxious troublemaker. If you just came in and said whatever you wanted without holding—and demonstrating—good will, you could come across as needlessly antagonistic (a particular danger in this medium, without tone and gesture to back up content). And it does help if you know something about what you’re talking about. Clearly, parrhesia shines only when paired with the other two values.
Though you know, an alternate translation of Buddhist Right Speech explains the precept as only speaking what is true and beneficial, when the circumstances are right, whether they are welcome or not. Sounds like parrhesia found its way into the mix after all! Defined this way, it seems we have good will, knowledge, and—at the end, at the right time—fearless speech.
In this forum, when you are interacting with me, I can say that speaking what is true and beneficial is always welcome. Some might worry, knowing that I have emotional overexcitability, that I’ll be upset if you disagree with me or point out flaws in ideas I present. But please don’t be: emotional OE determines and fuels my goals, but intellectual and imaginational OE are means I use to pursue them.
As I was preparing this piece, I also I stumbled across a passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is another thing I haven’t yet read but should. Well, at least now I’ve read some of Chapter II, On Knowing Others’ Reasons, with which I’ll conclude:
The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practiced as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. […] He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.
I invite you to keep this in mind while you are perusing this blog. Paired with eunoia and even a small amount of episteme, I welcome your parrhesia, whatever your stand.
Images from Pixabay, by lizzyliz, edibejko, Alexas_Fotos, and mkweb2. Owning to my delight in picking images that suggest an intuitive leap even when the connection may not be immediately explicable, I will explain that the cat in the header image is radiating nervousness, much like those who have something they wish they could say but are afraid to say it. But that was obvious, right? Also, cat photos make people click on stuff.