Agree to Agree

Just a quick thought…

I understand “agreeing to disagree” — really I do. Often, that’s where we get in a conversation. Maybe even most of the time.

But “we agree to disagree” doesn’t have to be the default position, does it? Furthermore, is that really a “conversation?”

When I read “ideas are exchanged,” I interpret that as being a two-way transaction. I suppose that’s an assumption, and not necessarily so. Perhaps sometimes the intent of a “conversation” is to convince the other person that they are wrong, and we are right. A one-way exchange. That’s a valid purpose. But I think it’s limited.

If I’m able to convince someone that I’m right and they’re wrong, then what have I really gained? Perhaps I really am right, and then convincing someone of it is a positive thing — just as positive as me learning I’m wrong. But I’m selfish in that I usually want to learn something. And that means either learning that I’m wrong about something, or at least learning that my understanding is somehow incomplete.

So, I think I try to make most of my conversations, and most of the conversations that I facilitate, start out with at least some level of “agreeing to agree.” The purpose of the conversation is — at least initially — to find common ground. From there, we can branch out.

The Predator?

I’m going a bit out on a limb with this post. Way out, actually. I’m taking a writing class* (several, actually), and this day’s exercise was to write a poem, inspired by a number of carefully chosen prompts. To be clear — I’m not a poet. I generally don’t really “get” poetry, unless it’s performed for me.

Anyway, my classmates and I were each guided to choose a person, some characteristics about them, and some human condition. I chose someone I’ve followed on the internet for some time whom I admire for their honesty, intellectual prowess, and courage.** The human condition was (of course) “understanding.”

If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. It probably won’t mean much to me in about a week, either. But it was a fun exercise. Besides… I do believe that a good argument — a good discussion — is a form of poetry in its own right.

He paces,

lost and found in his element; joyous and gladless.

Tools sharp, he is hyperaware — vulnerable and immune.

His prey is entranced, willing; no need to hurry or pounce.

He becomes the bars that imprison him.

They freeze; now brittle, transparent,

melting away in the warmth of the embrace.

* The class is called “The Creative Habit,” offered through Stanford University, led by Malena Watrous

** I’m not saying who.

A Gift From a Friend

A friend of mine sent me this just a few minutes ago, and I haven’t even responded yet to thank him. I just feel that this message needs to go out.

I believe in God, but I am not a religious man. I have lots of suspicion around, resentment of, even hatred for many things associated with “religion.” For me, most of that stuff has, most of the time, gotten between me and God, not led me towards God.

The friend that sent this to me is a deeply religious man, and this has often put us at odds over the years we’ve known each other — though almost never enough so to keep us from keeping touch (thank God — literally). But this video is where he and I intersect. I am deeply grateful for the gift, but also for the realization that this web site seems somehow to be at the nexus of the things we argue about so often — not only he and I, but so many of us, on almost every topic.

Note: the link above starts at about 2:11 into the whole video. If you’re interested in the rest, in which JP makes a case for religion, then check out the first part. I reluctantly and humbly agree that religion has an important place in our lives and in our society (despite my misgivings), and JP says it well.

So. Next time you’re in a confrontation… ask yourself… Who’s the enemy here?

(Thanks, Jeff)

Contempt Prior to Investigation

My wife was reading a book last night about EMDR. This was the quote at the top of the chapter — probably because EMDR is often met with a lot of skepticism, at least at first. I’m sure she took the time to read the quote to me because she knew it would resonate with me. It does. A lot of what UnderstandingOnPurpose is about stems from “contempt prior to investigation” — that tendency for all of us to have pre-decided what to think before actually listening to something someone has to say.

In fact, if you know who Herbert Spencer is, and you’re aware of his connection to Social Darwinism, you may have contempt for this quote, prior to considering it. If so, use this experience as a learning tool, and perhaps imagine the quote coming from someone you know and admire.

Since this quote was written in the late 1800’s and people “talked different” back then, Here’s a 2022 translation:

If you have contempt for some idea before having investigated it, then you have already invalidated any new information, proven the idea wrong, and assured that you will remain ignorant.

I’ll take that a step further. It’s not just the idea that we can have contempt for. It’s anyone proposing the idea. And once we’ve held a person in contempt for one idea, we hold all others coming from them with the same contempt.

Democratic Spirit

I’m reading a book called “Consider the Lobster,“ by David Foster Wallace. It’s a collection of essays. I’m on the one called “Authority and American usage,“ in which he discusses being a “SNOOT” — essentially a very rabid nerd about composition and grammar. It’s very deep, and extremely intellectual. I had to look up a lot of words and scratch my head over several “obvious” examples of incorrect English usage that he points out. I almost put it down several times. Found myself skimming ahead, wondering if I could just “pass” on this particular essay.

But every time I landed while skimming, I read something that interested me, much to my surprise. Something told me that there was something in this that I needed to read.

Furthermore, I was reading l was recently reading shortly after having an email exchange with a friend that I felt kinda crappy about. It was about politics. I left myself open to be challenged to a “this side is better than that side” kind of exchange, which I generally try to avoid. It’s just never leads anywhere, even with a friend I’ve known since college.

But then I came across this excerpt…

“… A Democratic Spirit (DS) is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100% intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship.

A true Democratic Spirit is up there with religious faith and emotional maturity and all of those other top-of-the-Maslow-pyramid type qualities that people spend their whole lives working on. A Democratic Spirit’s constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and to believe that the other camps are evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.”

This, in many ways, is what UnderstandingOnPurpose is about. I mean this web site is not strictly about political discussions, but politics is where a lot of our inability to communicate manifests (the other area I keep getting sucked into is Couples Therapy).

In my discussion with my friend, I was presented with a bunch of areas in which liberals interpret rules to benefit themselves. I maintain that conservatives do the same. I was asked to present examples, and declined. I declined because I suck at tit-for-tat arguments, I never see them resolve anything, and it’s entirely against what I’m all about. I could present a dozen ironclad counter-examples and it wouldn’t change my friend’s opinion. If you want to read an article about “Why Facts Don’t Change Peoples’ Minds,” try this link.

My basic approach is this: It’s a human trait to interpret the rules to your own advantage. We’ve all seen this at sporting events, for instance. The crowd cries “bullshit” when a “bad” call goes against their team, but applauds when the same bad call goes their way. Not only have we all seen this, but we’ve all been on both sides of it, and I’m pretty sure it’s independent of political party.

So, if you accept the premise that it’s a human trait to interpret rules to your advantage, and you agree that both liberals and conservatives are human, well, there you go.

Even my friend acknowledges this. But then “it’s a matter of degree,” he says. To which I also agree, but I’m going to stop short of the haggling, for now. Doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Haggling… reminds me of a joke.

A man asks a woman if she’ll sleep with him for a million dollars. She is initially somewhat offended, but thinks about it and says “yeah, under the right conditions, I’d sleep with you for a million dollars.”

The man says “Will you sleep with me for $100?”

The woman is grossly offended: “NO! What do you think I am — some kind of whore?”

To which the man replies: “Well, we’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling.”


I was reading David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” — The chapter called “Authority and American Usage.“  I learned a new word: Dysphemism.

Apparently it’s a new word for my dictation software too, because when I said it to dictate this article, even if I enunciate very carefully, it came out “this feminism.”

A dysphemism (this time: “diss for mizzen”) is:

It occurs to me that much of the common discourse I read or hear these days, especially in politics,  is full of dysphemisms (dismiss him‘s). Each side has their own. Consider “neo-conservative” as a substitute for just “conservative,” or “leftist” instead of “liberal.“ And don’t even get me started on “woke.” I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I’m pretty sure that the use of dysphemisms (this for Mrs.) is rampant, with each side straining to diabolically weaponized the English language against the other.

It happens in defense as well. We call those, much more commonly, euphemisms.  Have you ever met anybody that is “pro abortion” rather than “pro choice?“ Or, similarly, “anti-choice” rather than “pro life?”

My sense that dysphemisms (this from isms) are probably stealthily prevalent in daily use made me wonder if there was actually a condition called dysphemia (a word that, judging by the red underline, my spell-checker doesn’t even recognize).

As it happens, there is such a word!

I guess I find it interesting and telling that a dysphemism (yes from -ism) is a linguistic technique that makes something intentionally ugly, and the word that seems like it should describe the act of using this technique describes a mental disorder that leads to a lack of control. Coincidence? I think not.

Understanding depends on Trust

I’m interested in the language that’s used in polarized conversations. It seems to be coming up more and more often. Bill Maher talks about this frequently.  He rightly accuses the left of using labels that end in -phobic, for instance, where those labels don’t apply. I think that any time someone hyperbolizes(1) an argument, it diminishes it — unless there’s a good deal of trust between people to begin with. It’s weird, because the left is usually more guilty of complicating and confusing language in the supposed interest of subtlety and precision, but then somehow this often ends up in some kind of final label, which does the exact opposite. Remember Bill Clinton? “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” <face palm>

For instance, the left might argue that the theological and historical differences between Islam and Christianity are subtle and complex; that all religions are similar.  But in the end it’s the left that co-opts the term “Islamophobic” to mean anyone who disagrees with something that comes out of Islam. Questioning something does not mean you are “phobic” of it. I think every time the left does this, it allows the right a chance to co-opt an important concept like “woke.”  Woke was intended to mean being attentive to important issues. But going too far in that direction puts the whole idea out of balance, creating an opening for the right to co-opt the term to mean exactly the opposite.

The right, on the other hand, prefers simpler language — at least on the surface. Just hearken back to the bumbling language used by George W. Bush, or the overt schoolyard tactics of Donald Trump. Conservatives liked both of them because they thought they “told it like it was” in “plain language.”  In reality, they were often over-simplifying complex issues to the point of childishness. Questioning basic premises is not “gaslighting.” The right is proudly anti-woke.

Did you know that there’s a whole scramble in the interverse(2) to find a word for “anti-woke?” There is. However, people seem to be searching for the opposite of the “stolen” meaning of “woke,” not the original meaning. It’s like schoolchildren on the playground: “You’re ugly! Oh yeah? Well YOU’re uglier! Am not — you’re the UGLY-est!”… and so on. 

In the end, It seems to me that there are two fundamental alternatives that lead to better conversations (not to over-simplify, of course. See what I did there)?

The first approach is to slow down and pick at the language. To be logically consistent and coherent, we could be very precise in our language — defining and re-defining every term; justifying and clarifying and contextifying(3) every phrase.  We’ll all sound like lawyers. In general, this is not a world I want to live in. But lawyers serve a purpose in the world, and we would be wise to keep that in mind.

The other approach is to create more trust before we have important conversations to begin with. Allow each side to speak freely, and then allow each other to question each others’ meaning without nit-picking. This trust is missing in almost anything on the internet. I guess UnderstandingOnPurpose is intended to be a place where trust comes first. 

BTW… I tried to make up some words during this post just to be cheeky, and I failed. According to at least one of my spell-checkers, somebody already beat me to the following: (1) Hyperbolize, (2) Interverse, and (3) Contextify.

Beer bridged gaps

I think maybe this Information Age — social media in particular — has resulted in a world where we know too much about each other too soon. Worse yet, we know the wrong things before we know the important things. People post the most flattering images, which are designed to build their “brand,” and keep people coming back. The “look at me” culture that results from this has exacerbated whatever existing polarization we were already dealing with. There’s no time to get to “know” someone before we find out something about them that might separate us from them.

The following beer commercial (Heineken) is brilliant. People are pre-recorded in short interviews, responding to potentially controversial questions. Then they are paired with a “random” stranger with whom the clearly — bun unbeknownst to them — have some sort of conflict, based on those interviews. The pair is tasked to follow instructions to build something out of parts — a bar, as it turns out.

Then, after having spent that time working on a common purpose together, they are asked to watch a short clip of each of their own recorded interviews — revealing some underlying polarizer (that they have apparently not uncovered themselves yet). Then, they are offered a choice to enjoy a beer together, or not.

I find it fascinating. If they had know each others’ “secrets” in advance, the interaction would likely have been completely different. Why? They’re both the same people.

See for yourself:

Letting Go of the Hate

My wife, Linda, and I are addicted to “The Expanse,” which we’re watching on Apple TV. There are five seasons, and I think we just started season 3. At the end of season 2, the Reverend Doctor Ana Volovodov is counseling Amos, a seasoned warrior. We saw this come across our screen and Linda and I both lit up at how this passage was so exactly what UnderstandingOnPurpose is all about.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who picked up on the prophetic nature of this scene, as it’s featured on the fandom page for this character (played by Elizabeth Mitchell).

On every side of this there are people who have no reason to hate each other. Everyone here thinks they’re doing the right thing. Everyone there thinks they’re doing the right thing. If we get out of this we have to find a way to understand each other, to explain why we made the choices that we did. It is the only way that we can let go of the hate. Hate is a burden. You don’t have to carry it with you.”

– Dr. Ana Volovodov

Letting Go of the Hate