The Other I

February 19, 2019

Do our values make it hard to listen?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:25 pm

When was the last time you had a serious discussion with someone with whom you disagreed about:

  • politics?  eg: should Trump build a wall on the Mexican/US border?

  • science?  eg:  is climate change real?  if so, is it important enough to understand it in order to reduce its effects around the world?

  • poverty?  eg:  whether a greater proportion of people would be poor if the government provided universal support for basic food, shelter, and medical needs?

  • religious values?  eg:  is abortion fundamentally an act of murder which should be treated as such?

  • euthanasia?  eg:  does in individual have a right to take his own life?  should medical assistance ever be provided to help them die with minimum pain?

  • when is war justified?  eg:  is sending troops to countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, or Macedonia justifiable on the same grounds as sending troops to fight the Nazis in WWII?

Research shows that the stronger we feel about questions like this, the less we are apt to listen respectfully to those who disagree.  Families frequently are forced to avoid  religious, political, or even scientific discussions about subjects like these in order to remain on speaking terms at all.  Similarly, we don’t tend to listen to tv, radio stations, or read newspapers that fundamentally disagree with us.

Scientists call this burying one’s head in the sand “the partisan brain,” and hypothesize that this almost universal tendency may even be hard-wired in the brain. Historically, this has not always been a disadvantage.  Rather it has helped affirm a group’s identity and added to mutual community support that can be essential to actual survival.

But in today’s globalized world, this intolerance of our differences is as often destructive as it is constructive.  Not, of course, that there aren’t times and situations in which avoiding some topics is a mark of wisdom.

But often, I fear, we simply cut off those “bigots,”  “foreigners,” those proponents of “unintelligent,”  “racist,” “prejudiced,” “self-centered,” even “criminal” and “immoral” values.

But there is benefit to listening to these values and opinions to try to understand why these positions make sense to them.  There is a chance that if we can understand we might be able to change people’s minds.

And we might actually learn something ourselves!



  1. but by listening to the other and trying to understand why their positions make sense, why does this assume that their position needs changing, instead of ours? are trying to understand and assuming the other will change once we understand just as faulty a premise are we not back to square one? what is absolute truth?


    Comment by kateritek — February 19, 2019 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

  2. Good thoughts but I would re-phrase your last comments about getting others to change their minds if we listen and understand some of their reasoning. Rather than seek to change their minds (to our point of view?), maybe we could change our minds or find common grounds. I just noticed that another reader has made this point too.

    I’m not knocking you because I think your main point is to listen and try to understand others.


    Comment by rayvoith — February 19, 2019 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  3. Thank you for adding a much needed clarification to my post. I agree completely with what both of you are saying. I meant to imply that by my final comment: “and we might actually learn something ourselves.” I certainly know this has happened to me, and not just in relation to trivialities, either. In a similar vein, I remember discovering as a teacher that I often gained critical insights from my students, even though it was I who was supposed to be imparting my superior knowledge.


    Comment by theotheri — February 19, 2019 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  4. In a discussion like this I think it can be useful to keep in mind the distinction between facts and values. Your title is ‘Do our values make it hard to listen?’ But I would say at least one of your examples (‘is climate change real?’) is about facts. Arguably so is the one about poverty. The one on euthanasia would seem to be about values.

    Also any actual debate, whether about something factsy like climate change or valuesy like euthanasia, will very often involve both clashes on matters of fact and clashes on matters of value, and the clashes will often be jumbled up together. One of your other respondents talked about finding common ground. This always seems good advice, and part of seeking common ground should ideally be agreeing to see where the disagreement turns out to be on a matter of fact, and where the disagreement turns out to be a difference of value. Even in these days of fake news it should be straightforward, at least in theory, to settle a dispute on a matter of fact. On clashes of value a good approach can be to try to work backwards to find where the protagonists do agree, and therefore where the point of departure is – which is where the only option may ultimately be to agree to disagree. Easier said than done, of course!


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — February 20, 2019 @ 10:58 am | Reply

    • Chris, I think your distinction between fact and value is immensely relevant. It often parallels differences between faith and science. And there, in my experience, is where we often can’t agree even theoretically.

      Many people do not distinguish between values based on what science tells us versus values based on faith. Nor do they appreciate that values based on faith, by definition, are not based on the kind of concrete, testable evidence that underlies scientific fact, and so are often seen as absolute. Values based on scientific facts on the other hand, are not absolute since facts can change with more evidence or different interpretations. And so might, therefore, values.

      Even less understood by many is what makes evidence scientifically sound. Some of the issues can be quite sophisticated — the difference between correlation and causation, so that heaps of evidence might still not be supportive of facts. Or the need for replication, or the relevance of samples, or the meaning of probability in distinguishing various effects.

      Ah, I will stop. I know you know all this quite possibly better than I do. Which no doubt is why you pointed out the fundamental difference between fact and value that my post so overlooked. But I do deeply appreciate that those differences are so often why we find it so challenging to listen to someone else’s point of view. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Terry Sissons — February 21, 2019 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

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