Almost every knowledge discipline relies on us having a fundamental grasp of logical reasoning; however, it's not a subject we're taught in school.
In 1995, NY Times published a story with the headline "An Argument, A Shooting, A Fatal Crash of a Plane."
The headline succinctly described what had taken place.
An ex-pilot who worked in a rural airport hangar (someone who usually kept to himself) argued with his bosses at work. A few minutes later, he shot both his bosses and took off in a Cessna. The plane crashed 30 miles later, likely due to a lack of gas.
Did the argument directly lead to the shooting?
While we can make many inferences from the article above, logical reasoning tells us there must have been more to the story. Years of pent-up anger against the bosses, other areas of the shooter's life not going to plan, and so on. The final argument that led to the shooting was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel's back.
Unfortunately, such rage-induced shootings, in response to criticism, aren't uncommon at all. It begs the question, though—could either party have discussed their differences in a way that could have prevented an already dire situation from further escalating?
The short answer? Yes.
The long answer? Keep reading…
Agree to Disagree
The most obvious fact in the universe is this: We will disagree with most people, most of the time.
Sometimes the disagreements are about big things, like, what the right age to retire is, and at other times, about insignificant things such as how to fold a kitchen towel (not so insignificant, if you ask me – but that's a me problem).
Learning how to agree to disagree without losing your mind is a very worthy skill to cultivate.
Especially when we're inundated with opinions that aren't sugarcoated. Louder voices and wilder claims seem to attract larger audiences—both in traditional and social media.
Nuance is a dying art.
In such charged environments, I cannot overstate the importance of being able to reason logically with another person, even if their opinion is a polar opposite to the one you have, without getting your feathers all ruffled up. Not just for your sanity, but because, as we've seen, sometimes your life may depend on it.
Even though almost every other knowledge discipline relies on us having a fundamental grasp of logical thinking, it's not a subject we're taught in school. So, we make up rules as we go along. Sometimes really bad ones.
First, let's look at why we need to get a grasp on logical reasoning.
Logic helps us separate fact from fiction.
It helps us from being conned. It's hard to sell a timeshare in Timbuktu to someone capable of logical thinking.
Logic also helps us formulate and understand concepts. Remember the Geometry lesson? All squares are rectangles; all rectangles have four sides; therefore, all squares have four sides. Without logic, we'll keep reinventing what should be obvious.
But more than anything, logic gives us the tools to help us stay coherent and grounded instead of getting into screaming matches with one another.
Against logic, there is no armor like ignorance: Laurence Peter (of Peter principle fame)
Thinking logically and hearing others' opinions from a place of reason rather than emotion requires an understanding of the three steps below.
Step 1. Acknowledge bias
The first step required for civil discourse is to acknowledge our own inherent biases.
Whether we like to admit it or not, our belief systems are based on these versions of us vs. others:
- Me good; them bad
- Me wise; them stupid
- Me right; them wrong
While these may be true sometimes (especially the last one ), it is good to question these assumptions periodically.
When Copernicus suggested his heliocentric theory (the sun at the center of our solar system, as opposed to earth), his views were dismissed as heresy since it contradicted long-held religious beliefs. Copernicus stood his ground and refused to recant his observations, citing mathematical proof. Unfortunately for him, he was way ahead of his times and paid for what seemed a "radical" concept at that time with his life.
Every single one of us is a walking, talking bias machine. Some of these biases are ingrained from childhood based on upbringing and culture. Others develop through our interactions and experiences with the world.
Simply acknowledging we may not be perfect goes a long way in lowering our defenses and help us avoid many hostile arguments.
Most biases are based around a common theme: a fear of the other. "Other" here being any idea or thought pattern you haven't had exposure to. We fear what we don't know.
People fear what they don't understand and hate what they can't conquer – Andrew Smith
Step 2. Watch out for logical fallacies
The list of logical fallacies is oh so long! Entire books have been devoted to this subject. But I'll spare you the long list.
Without getting into academic definitions, I've listed the five most common ones that creep into my own arguments and are easy to identify in others as well.
Watch out for these fallacies when you're asserting or defending a position.
Ad hominem is Latin for "against the man." This is one we're all too familiar with. Instead of addressing the argument, it is the tendency to attack the person making the argument.
Deeply personal, vicious, name-calling attacks, and the tendency to label fall under this category. Ad hominem attacks work by undermining or discrediting the person instead of the argument.
She believes his stories because she's too dumb.
A false dichotomy is when you present an argument as an either/or scenario when, in reality, there are more than two options available.
You either support this movement, or you are a criminal.
These are probably the most common of all logical fallacies. Hasty generalization is when someone quickly jumps to conclusions based on very little information. Strong, sweeping word characterizations such as always, never, all the time, rarely are all clues to the fallacy of hasty generalization.
I swear I read this recently.
All millennials' problems were created by the boomers.
If you hear of a bold claim based on flimsy evidence, there is an excellent chance you're dealing with a hasty generalization.
The bandwagon fallacy premise is this: Just because many people believe in something, it must be true.
Sugar is not the problem; fat is the killer
was the premise used by many companies to sell low-fat (but high sugar) yogurt to a whole generation. No one thought to question the claim's veracity because of the bandwagon fallacy—since so many people believed fat was the problem, it must be true.
The genetic fallacy is when you judge an argument based on the origin or the source rather than the idea itself.
My 5th-grade teacher said a black cat crossing your path is bad luck. So, I believe in it. My teacher was a wonderful human being. She wouldn't have said it if it weren't true.
Step 3. Practice logical reasoning
If you've been able to uncover your biases and avoid logical fallacies, then it's time to practice logical reasoning.
Have you seen how students on debate teams work? They're given topics to work with but don't know which side of the case they'd need to argue on tournament day. Therefore, they work to prepare two cases: one for and another against the argument.
Trying to look at both sides of the coin is an important skill to cultivate.
If you always believed that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you may go wild if anyone suggests you wait until noon to eat the first meal of the day.
But, if you took the time to read and research how the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin function and regulate blood sugar, you may be able to corroborate your position with proven data instead of relying on purely anecdotal evidence. And, in the process, you may even change your mind about the importance of breakfast.
Nothing interesting is ever one-sided. So, taking the time to consider the opposing position will help uncover any long-standing biases or logical fallacies in play.
While I'm not recommending you hold your ground a la-Copernicus style and run the risk of being burned at stake for your position, tempering our beliefs with data isn't a bad idea at all.
How to practice logical reasoning?
Take your reasoning skills out for a test drive to see where (not if) your limitations are.
You won't be allowed to test drive a Ferrari on a racing track. Similarly, our ideas and perceptions are best tested in a low-stakes environment.
Pick something that doesn't get you overly excited – how long to sleep, or when to eat the first meal of the day (assuming you are not a nutritionist) and try your arguments with people you generally like (safe zone). This allows you to explore getting out of your comfort zone without the threat of being eaten alive.
Engaging in friendly, low-stakes debates will help uncover where your logical fallacies and biases are. The best part? This will get you closer to the truth, which, ultimately, should be the point of any rational debate.
Up the stakes
After you get comfortable debating in a friendly environment, you can up the stakes—with topics that get you riled up and against people who have equally strong but opposing viewpoints to yours. As long as you employ the same tactics—watching out for biases and logical fallacies in your own arguments, you're golden.
Soon, another roadblock may come your way. You're likely to identify biases or logical fallacies in the person you're arguing with.
If you are a saint
You may be able to point to the fallacies in their arguments without offending them and maybe even goad them to accept their flaws.
For the rest of us who can't stop judging
If the matter is trivial, i.e., there are no lives at stake, or blood spilled, and it's purely a matter of principle, it's best to try to take the higher road and recognize the biases fallacies causing your opponent's misguided opinions. But not before you've heard and judged the argument purely on its merit. To quote a friend, "We don't want no kettles calling pots black."
But, when there are serious issues at play, and you can't simply let go or take the higher ground, the next best thing to do would be to find common ground.
Common ground is the most undervalued piece of metaphorical real estate in existence—probably because it takes effort to find, but when discovered, it outweighs all other gemstones in its worth.
Skeptical? Here's a great example.
The unlikely story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis
Ann Atwater, an American civil rights activist, was one of nine children born to a poor black family in North Carolina. Her childhood was spent working on farms to support the family. Ann married and moved to Durham in search of better opportunities but eventually had to raise two children as a single mother in dire poverty. Through unlikely events, she landed a chance to work on a government project to help black people like herself escape poverty.
Ann soon became a leader and a voice for welfare reform in the community. This led her to co-lead a racial integration project in public schools with a person named C.P. Ellis. The real kicker? Ellis had a leadership position in the white supremacist organization, Ku Klux Klan.
You couldn't get a starker contrast between two people than Atwater and Ellis in terms of ideas. Those differences of opinion also meant the project was off to a very rocky start. Neither wanted to work with the other but reluctantly agreed to eventually.
Soon, as they started to work together, they realized they shared some common ground—both acknowledging how hard it was to raise children in poverty and how they each wanted their children to have better opportunities.
In Ellis' own words,
"Here we are, two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except her being black and me being white…The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn't know each other. We didn't know we had things in common."
By the end of their 10-day project, Ellis resigned from the KKK. He and Atwater became lifelong friends.
If this story doesn't give you hope in the power of the common ground, I doubt anything else will.
Upping the stakes in logical reasoning can be tiring. No one wants to be challenged on their core beliefs.
The only ways to move forward to keep the civil discourse going is through logical reasoning to discover inherent biases and fallacies and by finding common ground with those you disagree with are.
There are few universal hard and fast rules that are always true.
Stealing - bad; helping others - good; killing - bad; working hard – good, and so on.
But there are a lot more beliefs and opinions that are subjective and in the grey zone. What seems absolutely right to me may seem questionable, or worse, illogical to you.
That. Is. A. Okay.
If we all thought the same way, we'd be robots, not humans. And trying to convert everyone to see things the same way is how the most significant wars in humanity started.
We need to improve our logical reasoning skills to avoid being brainwashed or, worse, conned.
You don't have to change your belief systems if you don't want to. But you do need to be able to acknowledge that others are equally entitled to their opinion. And that requires you to try to walk a mile in their shoes, however ill-fitting it may seem to you at first. This cultivates empathy and tolerance.
Taking the higher road or getting outside our bubble and trying to find common ground may seem like a cop-out, like bringing a butter knife to a gunfight. The objective is not to win every argument but to get closer to the objective truth. Period.
I have personal experience with this. I once had a colleague who had a similar work ethic to mine. We bonded over work. But as we talked, I realized there was this wide chasm between us in our belief systems. What I had dismissed as irrational until then seemed logical, as she explained her point of view to me. Though it did not change my beliefs, this simple person-to-person interaction uncovered blind spots that weren't visible earlier. It broadened my perspective on humanity. For that, I'm forever grateful.
Get outside your comfort zone. Talk to people outside your bubble. If that's not possible, read or watch stories that are told from a perspective that is different from yours. Avoid listening to the talking heads on media. Their whole business model is based on riling you up. Watching cat videos would be a better use of our time than out-insulting one another on Twitter.
Building empathy is what it's all about. If that fails, you can always climb back onto your high horse.