Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ground rules for stimulating dinner party conversations

I teach an Ecological Ethics course at The University of California Los Angeles and encourage students to debate very controversial topics. Some students have strong moral positions about some of our topics and start off not respecting other opinions. For instance, a vegetarian who has strong beliefs about harming animals may not have a lot of respect for someone who believes it is OK to eat animals. I encourage plurality and respect. I tell students (and this dates me) that they’re not able to start their rebuttals with “Jane you ignorant slut” (for those too young to remember early Saturday Night Live—Google it and have a laugh!). Sometimes walking in someone else’s shoes is a good way to gain respect for another position.

Indeed, I assign roles to the students and if someone has an a priori opinion, I’ll ask them to argue the other side. Some of the ecological issues are topics that my students don’t really have a good opinion on because they’ve never thought about it (Are zoos ethically defensible? Is it ethical to genetically modify a species to save it from extinction? Is it ethical to reintroduce a species to its former range when you know that many individuals will die in the process?). I encourage them to read and learn. As we read and learn more, and as we think about the ecology of the problem (ecology is the study of why we see species where we see them, what determines their numbers, and how they interact with other species) we find that some opinions are more difficult to support than others.

There is one ground rule in the course, and I suggest one ground rule for your dinner parties: listen to and respect others’ positions. Put yourselves in your guests’ shoes. Try to understand why they feel the way they do. Gently ask people to explain why they feel a particular way. Don’t be pushy, be polite. Be empathetic.

Empathy is an important thing that defines us as humans. Empathy is essential for a truly civil and civilized society. And, as Paul Ehrlich and Robert Ornstein have recently discussed in their book—Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future—the loss of empathy has been associated with the horrific genocides of the twentieth century. If by hosting dinner parties and talking we become more empathetic and respectful of other’s opinions, this book will have succeeded in its goals. If by increasing empathy we are then able to work together to solve our collective problems, we will all be better off.

Good decisions come from a diverse set of opinions. Ian Mitroff and Abraham Silvers argue in Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely that we need a diverse set of ideas to be aired to properly solve problems. If you have a diverse guest list, encourage contrary opinions and seriously consider them. If your guest list isn’t so diverse, ask what a person from a particular religious background might think. Or what a very left-wing liberal or right-wing conservative might think. Ask what an engineer might think about a problem or what a psychologist might think. Such role playing is a tool to get diverse opinions aired, and the diversity of opinions will lead to better solutions.

A professor and chef from France once told me that the thing that is notable about French dinner parties is that people argue and often adopt strong positions. Voices are raised. Tables are pounded. Yet they stay at the table and come back for more. Learning to argue without holding a grudge is an important lesson in civility. One that requires practice. And one that we desperately need to practice now.

As an academic, I’ve been trained to take criticism without feeling (too) upset. View an impassioned argument as a challenge to logically develop and present your position. Use the feedback you get to improve your argument. And, ultimately, enjoy the process by which your argument gets honed. However, also realize that we’re humans and, despite our assertions to the contrary, we’re not the most logical of beasts. Toast to the things that make us human. And while you’re at it, toast to Lilly Tomlin who once said that “Man invented language to celebrate his deep need to complain”.

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