The Art of Discussion
 
The Art of Discussion

Before forming an opinion, one must know something about why a certain practice came into being, what might have been the original intention or deeper symbolism behind a certain outer practice or custom, what factors during a certain time and in a certain socio-cultural context might have led to certain practices.

Talking about and discussing important matters with our friends, acquaintances, social networks etc. has the potential to widen our understanding. But a recent online interaction once again made me ask a question I have often wondered about, why are so many of us so quick to take things personally in a discussion? Even when the discussion is about, say, a national level economic policy or a cultural matter concerning some old custom or convention, or like the present situation with India taking a necessary and strong stand – militarily and in every diplomatic way – against the ongoing brutality and jihadi terrorism originating from Pakistan-based terror groups.

Since such matters impact all of us in different ways, it is natural that as reasonably educated citizens we would wish to understand the various aspects of such decisions, policies and practices. How we go about this process of understanding, that’s what makes all the difference.

Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media and also a big chunk of the social media is now reduced to being propaganda machinery. One has to filter through a lot of uninformed opinion and ideological posturing to get to some nuggets of facts about a certain policy decision or proposal.

When it comes to topics concerning cultural practices and conventions, much more serious study is necessary. Before forming an opinion, one must know something about why a certain practice came into being, what might have been the original intention or deeper symbolism behind a certain outer practice or custom, what factors during a certain time and in a certain socio-cultural context might have led to certain practices, whether the practices have undergone any changes over time, what purpose these practices served at a certain time, in what ways these customs or practices may still be relevant or not, how do cultural practices evolve and shift over time, and so on.

In the absence of such background information and understanding, we are not prepared to discuss anything related to such topics. But of course, in the fast-paced virtual world of instant-opinion-forming-and-sharing such absence of knowledge doesn’t stop people from engaging in arguments and discussions on many sensitive topics.

In addition to doing our background homework on a particular topic it is equally important that we learn a thing or two about discussing things. At least learn how to engage in a discussion a bit more impersonally, a bit more logically and rationally.

I doubt if we really understand what it means to discuss meaningfully. Maybe we have simply mindlessly followed the motto of ‘personal is political’ and as a result have mastered the art of reducing every discussion to a personal or ideological battlefield of sort.

In a rational discussion, shouldn’t we be able to consider an argument being presented without any bias or opinion regarding the person presenting the argument? For instance, why is it so quickly assumed that the person presenting an argument is saying so because he or she must necessarily completely ‘buy’ into the truth-value of that argument? Why is it not assumed that the person may be presenting an argument simply because it offers an alternative or a contrarian view or a view that is perhaps so far missing from the ongoing discussion?

Also, why is it so quickly assumed that this contrarian or alternative view is being presented to put down ‘my’ stated view or position on the topic? From where does this incessant hold of ‘my view’ come in a discussion? Can we not separate the personal from the topic being discussed? Should we not separate the two?

An honest self-disclosure is warranted here.

I am often not a good discussant when interacting face-to-face with people, especially with people I have known for a long time and with whom I can let my guard down. I find my ‘person’ coming in too quickly, especially when discussing some topics about which I feel strongly, and it sometimes becomes easy to lose an objective view of the topic. I sometimes begin to take things personally, resulting in some unnecessarily heated exchange of viewpoints. But since such discussions generally happen within the confines of home or home-like environment with people whom I am extremely comfortable with and/or to whom I am personally related in some capacity, things also cool down just as quickly and the conversation moves on to more amicable topics.

Let me also admit that I am a much better discussant — a lot more objective, calm and often (but not always) personally removed from the topic —when it comes to written exchange of ideas and viewpoints. Perhaps that is because the very act of writing creates a kind of ‘stepping back’ situation where I am forced to draw out an argument more from a rational part of my mind than a mere reactive one. This stepping back helps create a necessary distance between the most immediate, habitual reaction of the mechanical mind and a more objective, rationally considered response of the logical mind.

It is this personal experience that makes me then wonder — shouldn’t our formal educational experience help us develop this habit of healthy discussion, without bringing our reactive mentality into the picture? Sure, we find a practice of classroom discussions that some teachers encourage, but more often than not these are just in name. For the most part, there isn’t really a meaningful environment to encourage deep discussion of ideas and a thorough exchange of perspectives for growing minds to learn and practice the art and skill of healthy discussion.

A good mental training must include the training of mind to: a) engage with diverse viewpoints, b) analyse each viewpoint for its merit and value, c) determine its validity and credibility within the scope of the given topic under consideration, d) evaluate its effectiveness and worthiness for widening the present understanding of the topic, and e) synthesize the diverse viewpoints for greater clarification of the topic.

This last point of synthesis of diverse viewpoints is important, rather it should perhaps be the goal of all meaningful and healthy discussion. Otherwise why engage in a meaningless mental gymnastic when we miss out on the goal of arriving at a greater clarification on a particular topic or phenomenon?

“…for where there is no meeting point of minds, discussion is likely to be sterile.”

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 35, p. 88

This point about synthesis is especially relevant in a situation such as the present we face in India. There is no point to mindlessly and endlessly debating whether India’s military stand is justified or not, or whether India should back down and play the ‘big, peaceful brother,’ if one isn’t willing, totally willing and open, to hear a view completely opposite to one’s own ideological bias – which by the way, is almost always based on a vital-emotional preference rather than a fully thought out rational preference.

This is important because we must understand that when it comes to serious matters of national security, as ordinary citizens we never have all the facts, so it is better not to be sucked into the half-baked theories peddled by the propaganda machinery that is most of our mainstream media. And secondly, it is high time that we wake up to the deeper truth that no matter how strong our little mental egos and our relative, ideological ‘truths’ are, when it comes to something as critical as our nation’s unity and integrity, all these little opinions we hold so dear must be sacrificed at the altar of our Mother India and we must speak in one voice as children of one Mother. This is not only a mental synthesis of diverse viewpoints – but a greater truth borne out of our deepest reverence for our Mother India.

Getting back to the point about a good mental training, it is also important to recognise that a good mental training also goes beyond helping us develop the art of discussion. In fact, it must also help us recognise and accept that a discussion, no matter how rational and reasonable, no matter how objective and calm, is not in its essence a truth-finding exercise. At best it is a means to explore the multi-dimensional and multi-perspectival nature of a phenomenon. The real truth is generally behind and beyond the outer phenomenon, is not only multi-dimensional but also transcends the multiple dimensions of constructed mental understanding of the phenomenon. Hints to the real truth of and behind the situation, to the ways of working of the Unseen Force behind the outer events, may be perceived only in a moment of complete silence, that too when one is inwardly in touch with the Truth of Things.

For example, in a situation such as the present we face in India, it is better to recall these words of the Mother that she expressed in 1962 during the time when China had invaded India and a state of emergency was declared by the President of India.

“Silence! Silence!

This is a time for gathering energies, and not for wasting them away in useless and meaningless words.

Anyone who proclaims loudly his opinions on the present situation of the country, must understand that his opinions are of no value and cannot, in the least, help Mother India to come out of her difficulties. If you want to be useful, first control yourself and keep silent.

Silence! Silence! Silence!

It is only in silence that anything great can be done.”

(The Mother, CWM, Vol. 17, p. 216)

No better words than these can help us see the innate and tremendous power of intense self-control and of deeper, inner silence rooted in a calm and true prayer for the good of our nation. To what extent we can practice such sagely advice in these times of loud social media depends on our individual will, our growing understanding of how the deeper Truth works itself out through all the outer phenomena, and our open-ness to accept that there is more to Silence than any words.

It is obvious that the social imperative of a mutually respectful and harmonious co-existence necessitates that we learn to engage with diverse viewpoints in a reasonably objective manner. Of course, taken to its extreme such an argument may be used to justify entertaining even the most barbaric or inhumane viewpoint in the name of some ubiquitous value like freedom of speech. But that would be an absurd and illogical conclusion not worthy of attention.

What is truly worthy of our attention is to figure out how we, as responsible citizens, can brush up on our discussion skills.

I share below a few pointers I often try to recall and from which I seek inspiration. Not that I always remember to practice these when I am in the middle of a heated discussion, but the awareness that I am not practicing these gives me the much-needed mental space to ‘step back’ and catch myself. Sharing these highly inspiring words in this reflective essay serves as one more reminder for practicing this advice.

(1) Not to allow the impulse of speech to assert itself too much or say anything without reflection, but to speak always with a conscious control and only what is necessary and helpful.

(2) To avoid all debate, dispute or too animated discussion and simply say what has to be said and leave it there. There should also be no insistence that you are right and the others wrong, but what is said should only be thrown in as a contribution to the consideration of the truth of the matter.

(3) To keep the tone of speech and the wording very quiet and calm and uninsistent.

(4) Not to mind at all if others are heated and dispute, but remain quiet and undisturbed and yourself speak only what can help things to be smooth again.

(5) If there is gossip about others and harsh criticism…, not to join—for these things are helpful in no way and only lower the consciousness from its higher level.

(6) To avoid all that would hurt or wound others.

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA Vol. 31, p. 87

***

“When, O eager disputant, thou hast prevailed in a debate, then art thou greatly to be pitied; for thou hast lost a chance of widening knowledge.”

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 12, p. 429

***

Question: What is the use of discussions? What is the best way to make other people understand what one feels to be true?

The Mother: In general, those who like to discuss things are those who need the stimulant of contradiction to clarify their ideas.

It is obviously the sign of an elementary intellectual stage.

But if you can “attend” a discussion as an impartial spectator—even while you are taking part in it and while the other person is talking with you—you can always benefit from this opportunity to consider a question or a problem from several points of view; and by attempting to reconcile opposite views, you can widen your ideas and rise to a more comprehensive synthesis.

As for the best way of proving to others what one feels to be true, one must live it—there is no other way.

Question: How is it that we lose a chance to widen our knowledge by prevailing in a debate?

A debate is never anything but a conflict of opinions; and opinions are nothing but very fragmentary aspects of the truth. Even if you were able to put together and synthesise all opinions on a given subject, you still would not achieve anything but a very imperfect expression of the truth.

If you prevail in a debate, it means that your opinion has prevailed over the opinion of another, not necessarily because yours was truer than his, but because you were better at wielding the arguments or because you were a more stubborn debater. And you come out of the discussion convinced that you are right in what you assert; and so you lose a chance to see a view of the question other than your own and to add an aspect of the truth to the one or the ones you already possess. You remain imprisoned in your own thought and refuse to widen it.

~ The Mother, CWM, Vol. 10, pp. 85-86.

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Beloo Mehra is a Senior Associate at Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture (SAFIC), a unit of Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry. She writes on issues related to Indian education, culture and society.