Promoting Spirited Discussion

Promoting Spirited Discussion

INVISIBLE TO THE EYE RICHARD B. GUNDERMAN, MD Promoting Spirited Discussion I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argumen...

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Promoting Spirited Discussion I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and they steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me. —Dave Barry

At our professional meetings and in our daily work, we need to encourage more spirited discussion. Often, the most memorable and illuminating sessions at meetings are not the ones at which a lone presenter articulates a single point of view but interactive sessions involving multiple participants at which differing perspectives are offset against one another. Likewise, in daily life, interchanges surrounding contrasting perspectives frequently shed the most light and provoke the most creativity. If spirited discussion is so helpful, why don’t we see more of it? Part of the answer lies in a recent trend in our popular culture away from meaningful dialogues that shed real light on important questions and toward empty debates that merely generate a great deal of heat. Radio and television offer innumerable examples of talking heads who morph into shouting heads and discussions that degenerate into mere diatribes. If we are to cultivate the opportunity for more genuine dialogue and reduce the prevalence of worthless debate in our professional and personal lives, we first need to understand the difference between the two. The word debate comes from an Old French root, debatre, meaning “to fight or contend.” Debating is associated with arguing, disputing, and quarreling. In the contemporary educational context, a debate denotes a formal contest between 952

two individuals or teams that take opposing positions on a specified question or proposition. Often, sides are chosen at random. One team is randomly assigned the affirmative position on a proposition, and the other team is assigned the negative. A dialogue, by contrast, implies talking together, a conversation. Dialogue was the preferred literary form of Plato, whose writings depict the paradigmatic philosopher, Socrates, fostering spirited discussions of such topics as love, justice, and beauty. The Socratic model of a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, is frequently contrasted with that of the Sophists, such as Gorgias. The Sophists differed from Socrates in two crucial respects. First, they claimed to possess and not merely pursue wisdom. Second, they charged fees of their pupils. The character of a debate may be likened to a tennis match, the tort and retort of verbal volleys back and forth across a net. Players take whatever their opponents dish out and bat it back in a manner designed to disarm them and thus win the point. In the time of Socrates, the Sophists were viewed as rhetorical guns for hire, whose mission was to prepare and present winning arguments. Sophists did not care which side of an argument they found themselves on. Rather, they focused entirely on using their rhetorical skills to win. The goal of debaters is, quite simply, to ensure that their views prevail. In this sense, sophistic debaters are not particularly concerned with whether the views they present are true or not. They are capable of producing equally elegant, impas-

sioned arguments on either side of an issue. The key is to clearly understand the position you are arguing, recognize or create the various arguments that can be offered on its behalf, marshal the available evidence, pinpoint the weaknesses in the opposing position, and demolish the opposing side’s arguments and evidence. In the quest to prevail, debaters absolve themselves of responsibility for choosing the correct side and focus on the techniques of securing victory. Debaters enjoy conflict and enjoy winning by securing the defeat of others. The quest for the truth holds less allure than a good fight. Dedicated debaters may take the opposing position on a question, just to make a good argument possible. In a sense, they value what others have to say, but only insofar as it provides the opposition they need to define and win a battle. The idea that they might learn from others, or that they might achieve a common understanding with others, is irrelevant to their purpose. Dialogue takes a radically different point of view. People who engage in dialogue are not committed to making their points of view prevail at all costs. They do not view conversations as means to their own ends, such as proving that they are better than everyone else. They do not regard what others have to say as mere cannon fodder. Hence, they are much less likely than debaters to interrupt others, to belittle others, and to distort what others have to say. The spirit of dialogue aims at achieving a clearer understanding of the truth. Socrates frequently spoke of philosophical conversation as a means of

© 2005 American College of Radiology 0091-2182/05/$30.00 ● DOI 10.1016/j.jacr.2005.09.011

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participating in a realm of higher understanding. Dialogue means to speak through, or to reason through, or to think through, but it also implies achieving something through words. Words are seen not as weapons, as instruments of conquest and subjugation, but as conduits or media through which to gain a more comprehensive, coherent, and clearer perspective on a question. The debate’s highest objective is victory, to declare a winner and a loser, while the dialogue’s highest objective is truth, in which everyone can win. The Sophists’ tendency to view conversation as debate was grounded in their cynical attitude toward the existence of truth. Protagoras’ famous phrase, “Man is the measure of all things,” represented a view of reality that was not only anthropocentric but morally subjective. One cannot claim to know whether a particular point of view is true or not, because there is no objective truth to which various assertions correspond more or less closely. One could only say which position has been more or less well supported in argument. For a Sophist to say that conversation aims at truth would be as unlikely as a Darwinist to say that evolution aims at mankind. In the spirit of dialogue, the goal of conversation is to gain insights that none of us is likely to achieve independently. Dialogue enables us to appreciate multiple points of view on a question and to develop new synthetic perspectives through the dynamic interchange of ideas. Dialogue is premised on the view that we are stronger collectively than we are individually and that if we unite behind the shared pursuit of the truth, we are capable of reaching cognitive wholes that are greater than the sums of their parts. This perspective leads naturally to a form of conversation that seeks to

bring everyone’s thoughts and experiences into play. As the supreme practitioner of the art of dialogue, Socrates was keener on asking questions than providing answers. He sought to help his conversation partners recognize the limitations of their own points of view and thus to seek out more coherent perspectives. He was interested not in memorizing formulas or in vetting prejudices but in getting people to examine their underlying assumptions. Only people who recognize that they do not know everything will enter sincerely into the conversation. The last person to learn anything new is the person who thinks he already knows it all. Socrates’ goal was to help people stop mouthing the platitudes they had learned in school and to start thinking for themselves. He did this in part because it was good for them, but also because he recognized that his own pursuit of truth was advanced at the same time. This is why he conceptualized truth as a realm to which human beings are able to gain access through the process of inquiry, rather than something that could be invented by any one person. In a sense, we are not entirely responsible for what we know because our ideas and language inevitably incorporate the collective contributions of others. We are utterly dependent on the cognitive bequests of predecessors whose names we do not even know. Dialogue requires us to be willing to reexamine our assumptions, including in some cases our most fundamental assumptions about the world. All great discoveries in the sciences and arts are the product of a certain kind of skepticism, a willingness to question what we all think we know to be true. If what we take for granted is absolutely true and unquestionable, then there is no point in entering into genuine dialogue. On the other hand, if there is a real-

istic prospect of achieving new insights into the way the world is put together and our place in it, then dialogue beckons. Having opinions is not bad, but devoting all of our time to defending our opinions may prevent us from achieving new insights. We must recognize that our thoughts are based on preconceptions that are not always as accurate, comprehensive, and illuminating as they could be. It is a natural tendency of the human mind to want to close the question, to assume that our preconceptions are good enough and that we needn’t give any more thought to the matter at hand. Happily, the joy of discovery can be sufficient to overcome this innate intellectual conservatism and enable us to have another look. Vital to genuine dialogue is the absence of hierarchy. Socrates was no respecter of persons and regarded an uneducated slave to be as likely a source of understanding as the most erudite aristocrat. He regarded the presumption of wisdom as a significant obstacle to dialogue and frequently protested that any wisdom he possessed was rooted in his very consciousness of the fact that he did not know. True understanding cannot be transferred from one person to another like water through a straw. It must be discovered through a dialectical process of shared investigation. If we believe that we are going to be criticized every time we offer an opinion, we may refuse to speak up. Worse, we may even give up on the dialogue altogether, becoming what Socrates referred to as “misologues,” haters of conversation. To engage in real dialogue, we must believe that our conversation partners share the very same risk, that everyone is vulnerable in the same way. If people view the conversation as a means of establishing or confirming our own superiority, then genuine dialogue is impossible.

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The health of radiology as a specialty and the magnitude of the contributions we are able to make to medicine and our patients hinge in large part on our success at fostering

stimulating, creative dialogue within our field. If we can spark real conversations, we will develop new collaborations and reveal things that otherwise would have remained hidden.

Moreover, our careers and our personal lives will be enriched by the joy of conversational discovery and collegiality that only an educated taste for dialogue can spark.

Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine, Department of Radiology, 702 Barnhill Drive, Room 1053, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5200; e-mail: [email protected]