To the Intellectuals: When Winning is More Important Than Being Right


I’m amazed at the level of condescension and tension prevalent in the debate between competing worldviews. Each side has become quite skilled at drawing the caricatures of their opponents. But beyond the exaggerated features of those with whom we may disagree are the flaws, ambitions, conjectures, and biases that are all too evident, though likely unperceived, in the mirror. A thorough personal examination might help us to understand that despite all of our education, “answers,” and hot air there is still much to learn in general and about intellectual interaction in particular.

1. We all have our own biases.

Admittedly, I have a bias towards evangelical Christianity; however, admitting our biases is actually the first step in the right direction of listening, conversing, debating, and learning. If our acknowledgement of bias is merely a pretense, then it is likely that the substance of our belief and the resulting interactions we have will be pretentious. There are no truly neutral or objective perspectives, only people who claim objectivity as they attempt to mask their underlying passions and presuppositions. I can agree that there is a range of lesser to greater, but not a complete absence of bias. The claim of absolute objectivity reveals a bias of believing in personal transcendence. What is your bias?

2. Vitriol can actually signify lack of confidence in your position.

Red faces, clenched fists, and cutting words are often actually indicators of insecurity rather than passion. When our arguments have been bested or refuted we will likely resort to rhetoric. If the winds of the argument begin to blow against us, then we face the temptation to employ the straw man and ad hominem fallacies on our opponents. We could also throw in a few generalizations and ultimately only prove that the real point of disagreement is on whether we are the winner rather than if we are right.

3. Let’s be honest, most people aren’t experts in everything.

If we were to regard people in general according to their self-acknowledged expertise, then there would be little need for experts at all. It is highly unlikely that a vast majority of people are experts in psychology, philosophy, medicine, literature, foreign policy, geography, music, art, education, theology, science, politics, mechanical issues, ethics, parenting, and numerous other aspects of humanity and society. Have you ever encountered a person who tried to give you a psychological evaluation while they were taking Psychology 101? Reading a book (or an article) or taking a one-semester course doesn’t make you an expert on any given subject. I have been in the same field academically and professionally for over a decade and still have so much to learn. Certainly we are free to have and voice our opinions; however, we should humbly realize that those opinions are not synonymous with expertise.

4. Most ideas are just recycled philosophies of old.

This is a humbling reality. Have you ever experienced the joy of a new idea only to be deflated by the realization that it wasn’t new after all? Being exposed to a new idea can be an exciting experience. Having a new idea is exhilarating. The unfortunate truth is that many of the new ideas (specifically philosophical in nature) are probably repackaged philosophies of old. It is certainly possible to be an original thinker; however, our vast heritage of ideas should produce humility, diligence, and true creativity instead of intellectual snobbery.

5. Religion is no more a straightjacket than skepticism.

The skeptic may be quick to point out that those who have religious beliefs are bound by the philosophical dogma of antiquated superstition. However, those with religious belief could also point out that the skeptic is bound by the philosophical dogma of progressive relativism. The point is that all idea systems should be questioned and neither side has the intellectual high ground. If the only view that refuses to be questioned is the view that demands all other systems of thought be questioned, then that raises a substantial question: Why? Alfie Kohn provides a thought-provoking and almost haunting answer.

There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us. (The Punishment by Rewards)

Kohn’s point is specifically in regard to the notion that educational paradigms have blindly accepted incentivization. However, the overarching truth remains the same. We should evaluate all ideas, even the ideas of those who claim irrefutable certainty.

So does intellectual integrity demand neutrality, vitriol, total expertise, arrogance and presumption, or freedom from religious belief? Of course not. These are only the symptoms of intellectuals who take themselves a bit too seriously and have confused intellect with ego. Take a deep breath, be diligent in thought, and engage others with humility. These are the actions of one who possesses confidence, intelligence, and wisdom.

Photo by Rooners Toy Photography via Flickr

Chris Dunn
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