Thursday, August 13, 2020

Critical Thinking Hack: Find the thesis!

A thesis is: "a position or proposition that a person advances and offers to maintain by argument."  according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

One of the most painful and challenging aspects of the debates I find myself witnessing or participating in lately is that there are times when you can't even quite figure out what the debate is about!  This is a standard conversational tactic that we use unconsciously.  It's natural to change topics intuitively during a casual conversation.  The problem comes when conversations aren't casual - these same tactics become the basis for confusion rather than intuitive rapport.

When the thesis we are arguing over isn't clear, it makes it easy, even natural to utilize all sorts of rhetorical fallacies.  The 'Red Herring' fallacy is quite suited for this because if you haven't clearly delineated what you're even talking about, then you're not breaking any rules by side-tracking off somewhere else, sliding into a different subject.

The problem here is that we're not just meandering through topics in a friendly way, in times such as the ones we inhabit today, we're usually trying to figure something out together.  When serious topics are approached in a casual way, rather than bringing us together, it seems to make us sloppy.  Instead of being able to drill down into on thesis, which we could prove or disprove, we're now faced with an onslaught of topics - some related, and some unrelated - and we're trying to manage them all.

Compounding the problem is that we're quite sophisticated on a subconscious level when we're under the sway of cognitive dissonance.  That means we might unconsciously resort to tactics like the Red Herring fallacy to get away from a focus on our thesis if we sense our position might be weak.  Without even knowing it, we'll start to dodge into a different topic.  Now our debate partner has to answer that question and we've diverted attention from the first.  

Perhaps you've had this tactic used on you lately?

A final challenge that is provided by debating topics on social media is that we can deliver an entire monologue that contains *multiple* theses at once.  When we do this, a debate partner has to be really committed to compassionately searching for truth with us if they are going to persevere.  To go through our monologues and discover the unstated theses and answer each of them with clear logic and compassion takes time, patience, and emotional intelligence.  You may have noticed that such inner resources do not seem all that abundant these days!

We can go a long way toward creating a culture of compassionate and lucid debate by incorporating just a single principle - that of finding the thesis!

If you know your own thesis, you can state it clearly so everyone knows what you're trying to prove!  You can also be considerate to only present one thesis at a time!  When listening, you can make it your first order of business to seek and clarify the thesis.

This deeper listening is very compassionate, can be a way of generating rapport. It requires/allows you to pause your desire to give your counterpoints immediately and to simply ask empathic questions until you discern what the other person's position is.

The final benefit of this above tactic is that you may find, if you really ask and dig deep, the thesis at the core of what an "opponent" is presenting is quite different than what you originally thought they were arguing for.  You may have been about to start a fight about a totally different issue!  By asking, you may find that you're in greater agreement than you originally thought.  I often find I share much common ground with my perceived opponents.  But even when we disagree, when I find what their thesis is, I start from a place of understanding, rapport, and mutuality.  I find that this is the very best place from which to have a difficult discussion.

Finding the thesis statement is not only a crucial step in any formal process of logic, but it can be a potent practice of compassionate listening - discerning what the other person really wants you to know so that you can work from common ground together.  [note: this is the thesis of today's blog] 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Recruiting All Empathy Warriors

 Um...  these are some wild times

I'll admit to you right now that I've been feeling pretty fatigued.

I'll admit, too, that I lost sight for a minute of my commitment to Empathy First.

It's easy to do.  We're a great big world community and there's pretty much nowhere you can go that you'd escape the ramifications of others' beliefs and behaviors.  With the sense of intensity and importance this interconnection brings up, it can be hard to remember to listen and connect primarily, rather than jumping right to trying to correct another and giving them a taste of how defensive we feel!

But in these times (and all times, really), connection goes MUCH farther than correction.  Haven't you noticed yet that when you get louder and more condescending, people listen LESS?  Meanwhile, while we're involved in the game of "who's right?" our own nervous systems get more and more wired up and stressed out.

Personally, I know exactly where my recent fatigue comes from - it's been from my adversarial relationship to the people, perspectives, and energies I'm meeting each day.  

Ok, but what do you mean "Recruiting Empathy Warriors" then?  What's a warrior if not someone engaging in adversarial relationships?  Here, I'm using the term as my spiritual teacher and martial arts master, Steven Baugh used it - "warrior," in our tradition essentially means "to be brave."  The tradition of 'Spiritual Warriorship' is an ancient and honorable one in almost all of planet earth's cultures down through history, and it can offer us tremendous benefits today.

The concept of spiritual warriorship, I find, helps cut through a dichotomy that can leave us un-balanced if we followed only one of the two extremes.  On the one hand, you have the idea of fighting, which isn't by itself very "spiritual," and on the other you have the idea of spirituality, which isn't always very effective.  But what if these two were not exclusive of each other?  What if there was a way to be brave and effective without compromising the principles of integrity and openheartedness we value?

The reason I say recruiting all empathy warriors in the title is because I don't just want to talk about this as a cute philosophy to make you feel better.  I of course want you to feel great, but that's not the point here!  The point I'd like to make is one that many trainers make to their warriors - that somewhere your enemy is training.  Somewhere, someone who opposes the values you stand for is working tirelessly to undermine them.  If we want to be a match for these adversaries, we can't think about our own discipline, bravery, and action as casual.  

We are not living in casual times.  The forces of entropy are always operating - working to tear complex structures apart.  Working to erode what integration and peace we may have found.  A warrior learns to come to terms with that, we contemplate death and impermanence and strive to live a good life in the time we are given.  In this moment especially, it feels like the forces of destruction and disintegration have turned it up a notch, working harder than ever to make chaos from order.  

A powerful insight can arise here: when you're working to stave off disintegration and disharmony, being a force of division only helps your enemy along.  I don't mean some edifices shouldn't crumble, I don't mean one should try to oppose impermanence itself, but dis-integration is optional.  You can choose to be a force for integration, and its human embodiment integrity.  You can be an agent of creating more harmony and unity out of our beautiful (and often very difficult) diversity.

But you can't do that casually.  To try to be a casual empathy enthusiast on the weekends is not enough.  In fact, if your heart is open to empathy and you don't act, you'll suffer from more anxiety, fatigue, and stress than if your heart was closed or checked out.  For me, heart closure, or checking out through drugs, TV, or even meditation are not an option.  The option is to move forward and recruit myself as an empathy warrior.  With this reframe, the immensity of the task before you is not a stimulus to collapse, but to engage.  Facing down insurmountable odds is just what warriors do.

Being non-casual doesn't mean being unrealistic.  Maybe you're working 50 hours per week and you don't feel like you've got the time and energy to build emotional bridges on the internet.  Maybe you've got PTSD and going to a protest march is not going to be sustainable for you.  I don't mean to say that you must do more, that you need exit the comfort zone in order to enter a zone of self-harm.   I do mean to say that no one is going to do the work for you.  There's only us.  If you don't act in alignment with your values, that's one less person on the scene showing up for integration, for peace, for equity, and humaneness.  Meanwhile, entropy, disintegration, hatred are easy.  They don't require recruitment, just a few appeals to fear and the whole body-mind organizes itself ready to sow more discord.  Violence is a virus.

But there is good news.  People of good heart, when exposed to these appeals to anger or fear usually wilt, but you could reframe your experience, you could retrain your mind.  Instead of seeing yet another act of violence/discord/misinformation and allowing the empathic distress of it all to overwhelm you into collapse, you could take on a warrior's attitude, you could think "ah, a sparring session,"  "ah, my opponent has disclosed is location,"  "ah, I know exactly what weapons you're bringing to bear now."  And you could let this rouse you to bring the fire of your values to an even brighter blaze.  I don't claim this will be easy, but I do put forth that when you do so, it will feel right.  You'll have come home to right relationship with yourself and instead of asking "what can I do?" and "shouldn't someone be doing something?" you will be doing something.

Hopeful too is the knowledge that in complex systems like our bodies and societies, even tiny changes can make profound differences.  The forces of chaos, dissolution, and entropy are not the only ones who benefit from this sensitivity to tiny changes.  The forces of integration and negentropy are also furthered by complex web of inter-relation.  Because we're all connected, because each act puts out ripples into this pond, or vibrations along the web, that means anything you do is potentially very powerful!

And so I make my request to you today: Recruit yourself as an Empathy Warrior.  Neither give in to the trance that says sowing chaos and division is the only way to "fight", nor to the trance that says hiding away to find your own peace is enough.  Learn to fight with your heart.  Be willing to show up as a vulnerable healer again and again and again.  Be strategic, learn your talking points.  In a world where fallacies and rhetoric are the rule of the day, grow ever better at pointing them out with compassion.  Step in to defend the oppressed every time.  Vote, and get others to do so to.  Take whatever time you can and research where legal or illegal groups are working to erode freedom, peace, and equality, and stand up to them again and again.  

And every time you stand, do it with love in your heart.  As Dr. King taught, nonviolence means not only being unwilling to kill a man, but being unwilling to hate him too.  It's not easy, but it's right.  If you recognize the warrior within you and recruit her to the cause you will tap into unknown resources you've never accessed before.  These are resources our world desperately needs!  The "enemy" - the forces of de-humanization and destructiveness know how to bring all their energies to the fore - shut down the heart, marshal a burning hate and the body-mind will burn hotter than ever until it burns up itself and all those in reach.  It's time for the forces of love and unification to learn how to bring all of their selves to the fore.  It's the same inner congruence, the same alignment, the same wholeheartedness, but aligned toward peace, toward harmony, toward making our values manifest in the world.

It's time to bring yourself fully to the fight.  Like the great teaching of the Bhagavad Gita teaches, the real fight is happening in the heart/mind/spirit.  There are times when we'll need to block violence with our physical bodies, but there's much to be done in our relationships inside and outside ourselves.  Our relationships are the primary battlefield, just ask any propagandist! 

I recently read that the overseas activities of the Peace Corps are currently suspended due to the pandemic, but peace is not suspended!  I call on you to form a corps for peace in every home, every city, every social media site, every church and yoga class.  We're recruiting empathy warriors to the cause, starting a nonviolent un-militia.  Get out and sow the seeds of peace with as much vigor as others are sowing the seeds of hate - you'll be surprised and fulfilled at the bountiful harvest we'll all share.