Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Facts, Controversies, and Change of Mind – Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Can Facts Settle a Controversy?
When emotionally charged controversies are at play, even when agreement on the facts is possible, it’s unlikely to lead to any settling of the real issues, because beyond the facts comes the meaning we assign to them.

For example, I have been in an ongoing conversation with a colleague about the healthcare situation in the US. We have absolutely no disagreement about the basic facts of there being dozens of millions of people who have no or low access to adequate healthcare. However, the meaning of this fact remains fully divided between us. Is it government stepping in that has created this, or government stepping out? Is it more important to provide care, or more important to support autonomy?

To come back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever facts we can possibly agree on are always seen through the lens of the framing story. That story informs what we see as cause of anything, how we evaluate the actors, and how we want to respond. A bomb explodes inside Israel. Is it a terrorist act designed to kill Israeli civilians and demoralize the people who are trying to live in peace in their land, or is it an act of a courageous freedom-fighter who believes no other way exists to call attention to the plight of Palestinians? If you believe the former, your response is likely to be doing whatever is necessary to protect life. If you believe the latter, you are more likely to want to be in dialogue to end the conditions that make life hard for Palestinians.

Given this wrinkle, I would much rather focus on attempting to create mutual understanding about matters of meaning than about the facts. I simply don’t see that facts can serve that big of a role in reaching across an opinion difference, a point to which I come back momentarily.

This is the primary reason why I wrote the original article the way I did: I was trying to uncover and connect with the underlying meaning for both parties. Our habit is to point to what we think of as “gross mis-statements of fact” and to believe that once the facts are settled, the rest will logically follow.

What I try to focus on, instead, is to understand this: if the other person agreed with you on the facts, what would be the meaning of that? What is underneath that wish for shared reality? What is it that you want to be seen for that what you think of as facts illustrates for you? This is the level at which I hope dialogues can happen. I trust what I have seen come out of such dialogues.

Do Facts Lead to Change of Minds?
In my work with volunteers in the Campaign to establish a US Department of Peace, I was repeatedly faced with the focus everyone puts on what they are going to say, such as the arguments they are going to present to support the proposed legislation or the facts and figures they can cite to make a case for the campaign. I have rarely met an activist who is trained in how to listen, or in being able to engage with others at the level of the deeper meaning that facts, arguments, and counter-arguments represent.

In the absence of engagement with the deeper layers, any fact and any argument can be subsumed into a pre-existing worldview without challenging it. It is well known that even hard core scientists are happily living with counter-arguments to the theory they espouse in their scientific field. You only need to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to see how widespread and intrinsic to the development of science this phenomenon is. Of course, here I am doing the exact same thing: citing a book, making an argument, pointing to facts…

I have been monitoring when I or others are being asked for reference for something we say. This rarely happens when the person asking for the reference is in agreement, except when they want the reference to be able to refute someone else’s position… Rather, people ask for a reference when what I or others say is not in alignment with their worldview. This is just one small example of how the underlying story of life that we have affects how we listen to everything.

So what is the alternative? The long version is likely to be a topic for another day. The short version for me is simple. I aim for mutual understanding rather than change of mind. When I enter a dialogue I remind myself that unless I am truly willing to change my own mind, I have no business asking the other person to change theirs, no matter how much I may think that my position is right and theirs off. I aim to see the humanity of someone with whom I disagree, and support them in seeing mine, because that is the best foundation for creating connection. It is, indeed, my belief that when we change our minds it is usually over time, in relationship with something or someone about which we care, and when we experience a respectful invitation. It is my hope that my work can contribute to more such conversations happening in the world.