“You’re Irrational, I’m Irrational, So Let’s Talk”: How to Argue Ideas in a Country Divided by Ideas

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Mattoon, IL, an in-transition, archetype community in the author’s journey to understand the ideas of “the other half.”

Ditch everything you’ve heard or believed about being a “rational” person

Happy memories of my years at the University of Virginia were recently accosted by the combustion of violence at alt-right protests and counter-protests just off campus in Charlottesville, VA.  What ever happened to the idea of two sides actually talking about things like rational beings?

This question becomes all the more pressing for me given that, at the University, we were weaned on that famous quote of its founder Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  We were taught that undergirding Jefferson’s “marketplace of ideas” was a belief that we humans have an immense potentiality within us that, if properly unleashed, would work through the mess of ideas to distill them into an elegant Truth by which to order the self and world.  Reason: whose only sword is cool, rational logic. Oh the exhilaration of learning about this as a late teenager—that I had within me this almost godlike power of intellect that, if only carefully honed, could perfect the world!

But I don’t know, Jefferson.  After the spectacle of last month’s mayhem right at the doorstep of  your University—your great temple to Reason—I just don’t know anymore….

If we do have some rational power to bring order to the world, somehow something much deeper within us keeps bubbling up, bubbling up and out in fury to actually wreak havoc upon the world.

“You’re irrational, it’s okay, get over it”

The current science (that is, if you buy its “reasoning”) seems to be suggesting as much.  A spate of recent books on the subject suggests that argumentative reason evolved not to help us solve abstract intellectual problems concerning the betterment of the world for all, but, rather, as a defense mechanism to protect from the imposing power of others. As Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes in a review of these books, “The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.”  Recent MRI brain studies show that when one’s viewpoint is challenged, with counter-arguments however well reasoned, one’s brain enters into a defensive mode triggering chemicals influencing “deep emotional thoughts” rooted in “personal identity,” not sound logic.

And it doesn’t help that social media enables us to enclose ourselves within ideological bubbles of the like-minded, “gorg[ing] on information that confirms our ideas and shun[ning] what does not.” We’ve lost the ability to hear sound counter-arguments, and when we do come across them, they seem to have only the eerie effect of inflaming our most primitive fight-or-flight instincts, entrenching us anew in pre-established beliefs.  No wonder we’ve entered into what Farhad Manjoo calls a “post-fact society,” where anything, even the most logical science or reporting, can be written off as fake.

This underlying irrationality about ourselves is both terrifying and liberating. Terrifying in that it means that our world-construct may not be entirely based in reality—whatever that is—but liberating in that it means that there’s a whole wide world out there waiting to be discovered in wondrous new ways!

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Your call cannot be completed as dialed

Release ideas, embrace people

I was admittedly angry at the demographic that voted for Donald Trump, and felt an overwhelming urge to demonize them as the worst people in the world. But I forced myself to research where they were coming from and why, and as I “got to know” some of them better, was able to empathize with them. I read how “Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair,” as well as “The lonely poverty of America’s white working class.” These are folks who’ve been left behind in the global order of the past decades, whose small towns have fallen into disrepair and depression—a demographic gripped with fears of demise and extinction.  Not exactly the stereotype of “the evil Trump voter” I’d conjured for myself.

Whatever instincts I had to yell and throw chairs at this demographic melted in light of these revelations. I may not be white, I may not be from small-town America, I may not have voted for Donald Trump, but maybe all of us are not that different from one another after all.

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Free HBO!

Beyond my ideas of these groups of people, who were they, actually?

NPR did a fascinating interview on Daryl Davis, an African-American blues musician.  After one performance decades ago, a white member of the audience came up to him and said that “this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”  Davis, surprised by the comment, prodded a little bit further, gently steering the conversation toward the roots of blues and rock. The two got caught up in a conversation over a common passion, and, if only for a moment, felt a stir of commonality.  As it happens, this gentleman had never had a conversation with a black man before, and was a member of the KKK.  But here, for the first time in his life he’d looked a black man in the eye and felt a glimmer of respect.

Mr. Davis realized that he may have actually altered this man’s views, and that it hadn’t happened by using rational arguments or sound evidence “proving” the equality of blacks—the KKK has long summarily rejected these forms of reasoning.  Much less did Davis try to use force.  Across the following 30 years, he’d go on to seek out relationships with countless other KKK members for the purpose of simply bringing them, and himself, face to face, eye to eye.  This is who I am.  Hi.  Who are you?  As it turns out, many of these KKK members have, through Davis, found a way to penetrate through the veil of demonizing “ideas” enough to see the actual face of the man sitting before them.

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

God is everywhere

The Thoughtful Ballerina

‘The Thoughtful Ballerina’ is Emmie Strickland’s first piece for COA. You can check out her new author Q&A piece here if you want to know a little more about her or get some guilty-pleasure music tips.

I spend the majority of my days perfecting my portrayal of a fairy. Between musicality, perfectly executed choreography, and adding in some light acting, this can be overwhelming. Dancers, and in particular professional ballet dancers, are known to be self-critical perfectionists. There’s always room for improvement. We’re just crazy enough to drain ourselves every day in a career where the ultimate success is unattainable.

Classical ballet is dominated by magical, ethereal, romantic, feminine, appealing, emotional, and otherworldly characters. Sometimes I’m swan. Sometimes I’m a fairy, or ghost of a young bride. It’s  centuries-old with messages that still matter. It is a traditional mode of visual storytelling that celebrates the god-like potential the human body has to produce beauty.

And when your studio is lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, you are locked into perpetual self-reflection.

This makes ballet dancers some of the most self-aware people you’d ever encounter. We’re on a never-ending journey to fully know ourselves physically and mentally, because well-danced ballet demands that. It’s full command of all body movements, be it facial expressions, breathing, or state of mind. Because ballet is arguably the most exact of the many forms of dance, those of us who dance it as a profession are attentive and self-critical of our ballet technique to the point of obsession.

It consumes us.

We repeat the same step in front of the mirror countless times until it looks flawless, only to come into the studio the next day and be completely dissatisfied with it because of the tilt of the head or angle of the wrist. Tears are shed over the details. We are hyper-perfectionists. Our bodies are driven to the edges of cliffs and we are devastated beyond words when they cannot do what we want them to do, or subsequently (but not surprisingly) get injured.

We neglect important aspects of life-like relationships, nutrition, and sleep just to inch a little closer to this unreachable mastery of the set of motions and positions, all unnatural to the human body, that is ballet technique. And since not a single one of the professional ballet dancers in the world would claim to have perfected it all yet, each day we are led back to the studio, happily hooked by the idea of becoming our most perfect selves.

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina. Photo by Jonathan K Taylor.

Yet despite the bliss experienced dancing through a dream every day, there lingers a cloud of uncertainty that gets in the way of my fully experiencing the art form. The all-encompassing world of professional ballet has handcuffed my ability to affect genuine change to the world we all share.

I have eight hours of work every day in a temperature-controlled studio, perfecting my portrayal of a fairy, while children die of starvation, bombs decimate villages, and the earth’s coral reefs petrify.

Big picture stuff, for sure. I’ve recently found myself thinking, how is dancing ballet relevant while I grumble over imperfect pirouettes. How are those pas de chats fixing the issues in civilization that my heart is aching to resolve?  It’s a maddening irony that ballet, my passion, nurtured the realization of this disheartening truth. I need me being a swan on a huge stage to somehow cure en epidemic. Right now, that swan shyly cowers under the shadow of her wing.

And while it might seem a comical proposition, I do firmly believe in my art form’s ability to enrich our audiences in countless ways. The fine arts are a necessity in a civil society; ballet included. We do find an occasional respite from elite theaters and velvet seats by performing outreach shows for underprivileged children. The art keeps history intact while breaking through walls that previous performers thought impermeable. It inspires and entertains. It reflects the human condition in a way that few art forms do.

Providing an artistic vessel for future difference-makers to have their own revelations is my redemption. I need it, and I hope they do too.

Maybe it is naiveté. Maybe it shows an inflated sense of self, that I believe I could affect real change It could just be a subconscious scratching of my ‘save the world’ itch. The hopeful (or hopeless, depending on you look at it) answer is that I should just pursue the obvious solution: save the world and dance. Fairies don’t need that much sleep, right? Conversely, maybe this is all the over-analysis of a thoughtful ballerina.

Artists and Nine-to-Fivers, alike: what do you do when your dream-career leaves your soul wanting? Tell us in the comment field below!