25 July 2005

On dealing with dogmatism

Recent conversation (after hearing the French MP's remarks about prior UK failure to deal with terrorism):

Acquaintance: "He's right, you know! How come we let all these people in anyway?
We're just a soft touch."

Me: "I don't think that was quite the point he was making,"

A: "Whatever! They all come here, don't they? I mean, where else would they get social security payments and housing and vouchers to spend in supermarkets? They wouldn't get that in.. in Spain, or the USA. How do they deal with them?"

M: "I don't know."

A: "Well, here the local housing association is saying that shortly they won't have any housing for local people because they have these targets to meet for asylum-seekers. What do you say to that?"

M: "I don't know if that is the case or not."

A: "Don't be so pathetic! You known more about this than I do, anyway."

M: "Probably, but I know enough to know that I don't know very much. I certainly
don't know enough to be sure whether what you are saying is accurate..."

A: "Are you saying I'm lying?"

M: "Of course not! It's just that..."
On reflection

Another typical liberal wash-out! But, given that we may well encounter that kind of viewpoint fairly frequently in class, it is worth a little examination.
  • If you are a fan of Transactional Analysis, it could be explained as an encounter between Acquaintance in Parent ego-state, full of dogmatic opinions supported by anecdotal (but unevaluated) evidence; and Me as the rational adult trying to counter those opinions from the fairly weak (but true) position of confessing relative ignorance. It is a "crossed transaction" which will get nowhere. But so what? We knew that anyway (apart from the jargon, which does make it easier to explain).
  • It illustrates the potency of stories (page on this coming soon) and that their discourse is different from reasoned argument. I can argue with an argument, but the response to a story—a statement of claimed fact—is to accept it as "true" or to accuse someone of "lying" (in this kind of discussion, "honestly mistaken" does not really enter into it).
  • I could have risen to the challenge with my own stories about asylum seekers and the privations they experience: but that is just a head to head, "who do you believe?" confrontation, which is OK informally, but not one you want to get into in the classroom.
  • The potency of the dogmatic argument comes from its "definition of the situation". Partly because she initiated the exchange, A set the rules within which the discussion (if such it was) proceeded. In these terms, "I don't know" is the most pathetic response imaginable (apart perhaps from, "OK, whatever you say..."). On the other hand, it is the response with the greatest intellectual integrity, and perhaps the most "scientific" response.
So how might I have handled this in class? I could have resorted to my positional authority as "teacher" and simply put an end to it. In some cases, if the actual discussion were irrelevant to the topic and the scheme of work, that might well be the appropriate response.

"You are entitled to your opinion, but we are currently looking at tesselating patterns, OK?"

However, (as I can now say after years of painful experience) I should not have allowed the discussion to proceed in this way. Not that the issue should not have arisen. In the social studies classes I taught, it would have been routine. But I would have established ground rules in advance, about opinion being based on clear evidence, which would have helped me to define the situation, with a quick—"Hey! Remember what we said earlier about evidence? And the quality of that evidence?" And I could then have legitimately referred to "we" and "us" because I would have had everyone signed up to the principle.

It's never as simple as that, of course. It gets more complicated when you encourage people to bring their own direct experience to bear on the topic, which is very useful; and even more complicated when you actually agree with the dogmatic opinion. But you can't exempt something from the ground rule simply because you agree with it.