Archive for May 20th, 2006

three classes of discourse

May 20th, 2006

What's that, you're ready for another one of my gross oversimplifications? Okay then.

So every once in a while there is some issue in the political, social, environmental, legal, economical.. (etc) realm that gets a lot of people riled up. And when enough people start forming opinions and talking about a subject, I think often we can distinguish three classes of discourse.


The ill informed

The loudest and most populous group is the one of the least informed. These are people who don't know much about the issue, but they have a very strong opinion and they're easily swayed by the flock mentality (into adding points to their point of view, because everyone else seems sold on them). Oddly enough [one might think], these people are hard to convince with solid arguments or evidence, they feel they have enough information to hold their stand. It is because they not only take their stand on a true/false premise, they cling to it for other reasons, like social pressures in the flock. Finding the truth is an obscured objective, it seems more important to stand strong. And at this level, social pressures are strong, even modest variations in opinion from the core standpoint will come under heavy fire.

At the same time, in order to be able to present a strong (and unified) point of view, there is a great thirst for simplification, so you will hear from this group very simplistic expressions. For instance, during the Norwegian debate on EU membership in 1994, the opponents's tagline was "The EU wants to take all our money".

The reticent

Most distinct from the least informed is it that the reticent are very aware of the fact that they don't have all the facts. And this humbles them significantly, they are willing to press for their point of view as long as they feel confident about the facts, but they will not wander into uncertain territory. I label them reticent, because they are averse to making absolute statements, to drawing conclusions. They would rather discuss one point at a time and establish a consensus for each one, whether or not the points point in the same direction. They are primarily after the truth, which makes them open to new points of view, new evidence. Their stand is rational rather than emotional, so they will let themselves be convinced by factual arguments.

The social context of this group is radically different, it isn't a gang mentality, it's a much more respectful atmosphere, open toward new ideas. No two people agree, they only agree on certain points, and it's downright abnormal to exactly replicate another person's stand on the issue. The opinions are not overly simplistic, they take into account the complexity of the issue. But as always there is a certain degree of humility to every opinion, no belief is held with complete certainty.

The well informed

Firstly and crucially, the well informed are not numerous. They rarely even find themselves in the company of other well informed people. And so while they are not populous, they aren't loud either, having to put up with people who aren't really qualified to talk about the issue.

The well informed usually have a stand on the issue, and "the facts are inconclusive" is a valid stand as well. They know enough about the issue to form an opinion, but their opinions are very refined and simply cannot be simplified into anything that would suit the ill informed. Just about every answer to every question begins with "that depends".

The well informed are enlightened enough to the point where the rewards for social interaction are no longer coveted. They do not draw satisfaction from "being right" simply because they believe they are right anyway. And so whether someone chooses to inform themselves adequately and see the same as they do matters little to them. Because they are surrounded by the less informed, they will rarely care to express their full opinion, only when confident that the listener will be able to appreciate the full extent of it.

Enough evidence will sway the well informed, but it would take a hell of a lot, because they've already seen most of it.

I'm sure we've all belonged to each one of these groups at some points in our lives. I most frequently find myself among the reticent, I concede there is much I don't know, but I don't have the time or willingness to spend an enormous amount of time on informing myself about the issue. Least frequently I'm among the well informed, this happens sometimes when some issue that I'm deeply involved in suddenly becomes a loud issue among lots of people and I suddenly see very clearly who belongs to which group. When I was younger, I was more frequently among the ill informed and I still am now from time to time. But I think the realization of that is what lifts us out of it, once I realize I'm willingly ignoring certain facts, it's harder to keep on doing it.

There is quite a lot to be said about interactions between groups and members of groups, perceptions between groups and so on, but that is quite a big subject in itself.