When it’s done well, conversation’s an art that impresses me more than anything in the world. Humans learn all sorts of fascinating minutia while tooling around the world they inhabit, and some of them have a good sense of humor. There’s nothing like talking with someone who can make you laugh and teach you things at the same time: gossip, trivia, history, world culture, current events, important and unimportant things, inexplicable things, and things as mundane as what happened on last night’s episode of “Whatever.” Hell, people can even provide an intuitive guess at things they don’t know, which, after some cross-referencing with other people, usually becomes one of our educated guesses, and upon which many of us regularly depend.
In Southern California, however, we have a treasured tradition of attempting to convince one another of our ideas and opinions. We squabble over the quickest route from A to B, and exhort one another with banners and bumper stickers (especially around election time). Even our fucking tee-shirts bear the slogans and advertisements of our favorite points-of-view. In popular gathering places, the usual discussion happens in every color of the rainbow a thousand times over:
“Yes, it is!”
“No! It isn’t…”
All this shallow bickering should have stopped in grade school, but our social development is arrested by our earnest desire to help — at least, that’s the noble reason I’m giving for it; pride in our powers of perception fuels arguments at least some of the time. Note also that there are excellent reasons to argue (see How to Refrain from Being a Dick for some examples) even though the bulk of arguments are bunk, but one must grow accustomed to the presence of contradictions and paradoxes in this life, and our desire to work together for the perpetuation of circular arguments seems to be one of them. More on paradoxes later.
What reasons exist for giving up the incessant “tastes great / less filling” sort of tennis match and resuming less-combative conversation? Read on, o’ my fellow friends of the Friday-night beer talk, and we might find a way to shut up our faces long enough to finish a watery American lager.
-Standing by One’s Opinion Is Vain
It’s a strange culture we live in. We’re expected to be modest yet confident, friendly yet assertive, firm yet yielding, a list of directives that sounds like a good kiss. It’s a fine balance, and in that balance we’re taught that “Your Opinion Matters!” even while all opinions are “like assholes: everyone’s got one and they all stink.” I saw the former on a poster in a mall, I think. My grandfather used to say the latter. Who would you listen to first?
It’s true that everyone has opinions, though. There’s little way around that, and if everyone has them, then one person’s idea is worth about as much as another’s, since even a so-called good idea can potentially be had by someone else. Most people don’t argue other people’s points of view in an argument, though, and I find that extremely telling. We’d often benefit by relating someone else’s point of view, rather than something we cooked-up ourselves, because one can’t be accused of arguing out of pride when the argument posed isn’t one’s own. I’d be happy to give you my stepfather’s opinion of the New York Yankees, for instance, because I’m not a sports fan and there’s little danger that you’ll think me very serious about myself.
I’d also be glad to give you Marcus Aurelius’ perspective on willpower, Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God, Fuller’s evidence that the world needs communism, and other trite epiphanies, but please don’t hold me accountable for relating them! They aren’t my fault. They were written years before I was born.
Appealing to the authority of famous smarty-pantses of the world is a notorious logical fallacy — in other words, quoting Albert Einstein doesn’t make one’s contention correct — but it’s much less vain than presuming others should accept your opinion simply because you’re so fucking cool.
It may be that one’s own opinion is most politely stated as a question, like, “I wonder if Iggy Pop isn’t better than David Bowie?” but we can’t always talk that way, so it’s important to remember the following.
-Everyone Is the Center of the Universe
Nobody can have any point of view but his or her own. Everyone is the center of their universe. They don’t know what your universe is like, and you don’t know theirs. The universes may have commonalities, or they may not. Regardless, my daily evidence suggests that I am the most important thing to myself so truly and consistently, that even my most heartfelt principles and ideals are only worth dying for because, hey, that’s my opinion.
If I allow that you humans are like me, and that you are centers of universes, too, then there’s no fucking way I’m going to convince any of you of anything (unless of course I say something you almost agree with, anyhow, or simply hadn’t thought of yet). It’s especially difficult to convince others of something they do not readily believe since the proliferation of Grandpa’s opinions-and-assholes principle, the aforementioned proverb our culture developed to devalue any and every opinion from Kant’s Categorical Imperative to the capitalism of Carl Karcher.
We’re partially convinced everyone else is wrong before we even arrive upon a topic of discussion, and that’s not surprising; we were there to witness every time we were right, and we partially doubt (or forget altogether) many of the times we were wrong. Who, after all, can argue with the center of the universe? Besides, even if Jack were to convince Jill of a certain idea, Jill would merely be placing her own judgment of Jack’s reasoning before and above his idea in question.
One can’t accept or deny an idea as logical or illogical without presuming a presiding authority. Parents discipline their children out of an inability to dethrone the god who refuses to recognize Dad or Mom as a sovereign leader. Obedient children obey predicated on their own decision that doing so produces favorable results.
-Everyone’s Opinion Is Justified, and Everyone’s Reason Is Erroneous
It seems certain that all opinions have the same subjective value, but ideas backed by logic or reason have quantifiable, given parameters by which they must be measured. In the case of the subjective, we are almost always correct and justified (we earnestly do feel that X is Y); in the case of the objective, we are almost always incorrect and unjustified from the largest perspective, because we know too abysmally little to state things as universally, absolutely true, and can only be correct in small, easily defined, easily proven and quantified matters, such as arithmetic — and even then, paradox shows that we are wrong from other perspectives.
To illustrate the futility of solid logic on a universal scale, consider some rudimentary arithmetic: good ol’ 1 + 1 = 2. Given that we will use Arabic numerals and some other laws previously agreed-upon, this is going to seem standard, true, and inarguable. The answer, however, is vulnerable to alternative interpretation due to the accepted meaning of addition, and of “1,” itself. If one were literally added to one other, then the result should be a unification of these two separate entities. In math alone, we agree to call this unification “2,” but linguistically, philosophically, or metaphysically the logic falls apart, because a uni-fication must result in uni, the Latin word for one. From these points of view, anything added to anything else will result in exactly one new thing, and we happily operate in a world where these two conflicting perspectives are both true at the same time, never questioning either of them.
The desert is hot? It’s an icebox compared to the sun. Your OJ too sweet? It’s entirely sour when opposed to honey, and honey’s still bland compared to a mouthful of refined sugar. Everything’s validity or value depends on scale, context, and relativity, and for this reason everything is true, and everything is false. Proving anything one way is the silliest thing in the world to achieve, because there are an infinite number of other perspectives, each of which may equally prove or disprove it depending on what you’d like to accomplish.
From the broadest perspective, in other words, absolute truth is as arbitrary as the selection of a crayon. And I want a fuschia dinosaur.
The coup de grace is really brutal, though: even upon reaching a stable, static, universal truth, we find that the entire universe is in constant flux, rapid change, turmoil, decay, permitting, emitting, transforming, creating, destroying, and “moving on,” as Stephen King put it once, so that any true answer was only true for that universe at that time — and that was some time ago.
-A Somewhat Oriental Alternative
My opinion is that contradiction and paradox are the bread and butter of the cosmos. If I may be allowed to appeal to some authorities, quantum physics (and several other religions) agree with me, not to mention Ken Wilber, who looks so cool you just know he’s hip to his shit. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. We’re all wrong. I’m wrong right now; just ask all the people who stopped reading halfway through. When people respond to a question, “Hmm, well yes and no,” I hear the warm laughter of oblivion and smile inwardly, but when I hear people insist that they know what they’re talking about, I have to laugh at myself for having absolute confidence that they should not be so confident.
Habitually trying to convince others to change their opinions is not only futile in the long run, it’s also genocide against the opinions you don’t hold. Who wants everyone to agree with one another? That kind of peace and harmony sounds fucking beige. The only reason I have no contempt of those oh-so-cooperative insects, ants, is that deep down inside, I really believe they’re all arguing over the appropriate size food granules should be for carrying back to the nest. It’s one of the interesting things about them.
There’s nothing wrong with letting the Rolling Stones be better than the Beatles, so long as the Beatles are also better than the ‘Stones. I prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway because I’m fairly certain that Hemingway is better. Sometimes I wonder, perhaps I have never been very enthusiastic about sports teams because both sides of any game is a fleeting moment in a fleeting century, a single strike of the paddle in a ping-pong tournament played on a cruise ship which rounds the peninsula and disappears into the mist, forever. Hell, sports teams don’t even have the same members game-to-game, let alone season-to-season! People will wear the same logo on their cap from kindergarten to their own funeral, though, and some of them will be buried in it.
That, dear fellows, is what it means to try to convince people of things. It’s insisting that the fluffy, domed cloud up there really is a turtle because that’s the way you see it, and because you’ve seen a helluvalot of clouds, by god. My favorite part of all, though, is the hypocrisy involved in writing this piece, hypocrisy which will also be necessary to criticize or pontificate about it. Hypocrisy is the sudden realization that one is the person whom one has chastised. We define ourselves by standing out in contrast to others, and that makes us all identical in our hypocrisy. How cute.
The trick, then, is to simply avoid the hypocrites who really seem passionate about their-slash-your point of view, right? We can do that, can’t we? Then we’ll have peace, a much more apathetic, blasé temperament all-around, and that’s something for us all to work toward.
So, until someone comes up with a better idea, I remain
*Note: The artist featured this week, Tyler Philips, may also be found at his design company, Circuit 26 Design.