Gifts of Discomfort for the Holidays
I was recently on C-Span discussing civil discourse and today a piece I was interviewed for was posted at MLive. I thought I'd follow those up with a couple of posts encouraging civil discourse over the holidays. Here's the first.
Years ago, the parents of my college girlfriend gave me a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as a Christmas present. They clearly thought (probably correctly) that I was not very good at talking with people. That was a long time ago, but it was important. I think my girlfriend thought (probably correctly) that I was insulted. In giving me that book as a gift, they made me uncomfortable, making me think more about some of my shortcomings. The thing is, it helped me. So, thanks to them.
In being willing to give me such a gift—a gift of discomfort—they helped me become a better person, one (somewhat) better at engaging with others than I had been. For me, for what it’s worth, this is a continual process and my wife now gives me that gift from time to time as well, helping me see where I can improve when engaging with others. So, thanks to her.
Very often, the way we improve is by being uncomfortable. A second example from my life: in the last year or so, I’ve lost almost 100 pounds. Why did I work to lose that weight? Because I was uncomfortable with the increased health risks of being overweight and with and the thought of leaving this world early.
Being uncomfortable can spur us to be better. Making each other uncomfortable is thus often a gift.
Perhaps what I’ve said so far will sound entirely reasonable. But the idea that we grow from discomfort is far more important than it leading to better interpersonal engagement or improved health for a few.
Consider what we might call “epistemic discomfort”—the lack of comfort in one’s beliefs. Epistemic discomfort is often caused by being faced with opposition to one’s beliefs. When someone goes away to college, for example, they might for the first time meet people from a big city, or from a farming community, or from a different religious or cultural group, or even from a different country. When you meet people like that you find out that there are a huge number of beliefs that are different from yours—sometimes radically opposed to yours. When you learn of those beliefs, especially when it’s the first time, it has a way of challenging you and putting you in a position of epistemic discomfort.
Many seem to hate epistemic discomfort and seek to avoid it when possible. This is true of many college students—who often refuse to disagree with their peers or their professors, choosing instead to self-censor. This is true in our broader culture as well. Indeed, many believe it is simply rude to disagree with others. All of this, I believe, is a mistake. We should be willing—indeed eager—to express our disagreement with others. Sometimes we ought even be willing—indeed eager—to express some imagined disagreement with others.
Providing others disagreement is giving them the gift of discomfort. It is a way of encouraging them to think more seriously about what they believe. Often, they will do so and remain committed to what they already believed, finding flaws in the opposing ideas or ways to bolster the ideas they already had. Often, though, they will realize it was their own ideas that were flawed. Either way, they will be better off—either having better reason for, and perhaps more of a commitment to, what they already believed or discarding unsupportable beliefs for more supportable beliefs.
Importantly, the gift of discomfort that we can give to one another is not just a gift for the individuals receiving it. It is also a gift for the entire polity. A culture that takes seriously opposition beliefs—a culture that encourages people to express their disagreements—is a culture wherein people do not easily take offense by what others say. A culture that takes seriously opposition beliefs is a culture of individuals that can argue civilly, without rancor. It is a culture that can seek and reach political compromise. It is a culture wherein polarization has no place. It is a culture where liberal democracy can thrive.
This holiday season, consider giving the gift of discomfort.