Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine: It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.


Sometimes the Twain Should Meet

That we are, each of us, different is a given; that societies and the cultures they produce are different, is also self-evident. But that any one individual picked at random should be representative of that difference is another matter. We humans tend to be bicameral when and if it suits us. For example: my Asian friend is clever and devious, so most Asians are probably clever and devious (inductive reasoning); but at other times: everybody knows the French are rude, so perhaps I should not hire that French person (deductive reasoning).

How much credence can we put in either type of reasoning when it comes to judging world views of different cultures? There was an interesting article in BBC News about this a while ago:  And as you can imagine, the issue is complex: ‘From the broad differences between East and West, to subtle variation between U.S. states, it is becoming increasingly clear that history, geography and culture can change how we all think, in subtle and surprising ways – right down to our visual perception. Our thinking may even have been shaped by the kinds of crops our ancestors used to farm, and a single river may mark the boundaries between two different cognitive styles.’

‘[…] our “social orientation” appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.’

For example: ‘An eye-tracking study by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan found that participants from East Asia tend to spend more time looking around the background of an image – working out the context – whereas people in America tended to spend more time concentrating on the main focus of the picture.’ So, ‘[…] this narrow or diverse focus directly determines what we remember of a scene at a later date.’ But because things like these seem to be so widely dispersed in a population, is it a genetic difference, or merely a learned, culturally favoured response? ‘Alex Mesoudi at the University of Exeter recently profiled the thinking styles of British Bangladeshi families in East London. He found that within one generation, the children of immigrants had started to adopt some elements of the more individualistic outlook, and less holistic cognitive styles. Media use, in particular, tended to be the biggest predictor of the shift. “It tended to be more important than schooling in explaining that shift.”’

The article goes on to suggest several theories as to why the so-called East-West differences arose in the first place -everything from epidemics, to types of crops grown by different populations, but the problem still remains: the differences lie on a spectrum –‘broad trends across vast numbers of people’. And yet even so, especially in small interpersonal discussions –dare I say ‘arguments’?- we are very likely to use whatever generalization makes our point.

But, for many of us, that tends to preclude any semblance of critical analysis. It’s far easier to succumb to the prevailing opinion without questioning the reasons for its presence, let alone its validity. And it’s not just the so-called East/West divide –the potential seems to arise whenever any culture examines another. Perhaps an example that stands out clearly in contemporary life, is that of the hijab –the headscarf. Sometimes the objections are couched in religiosecular terms of course, but they often boil down to simple perspective –Weltanschauung.

Aaisha, a Muslim friend of mine recently decided to wear the hijab, and although there were no prohibitive policies or objections from her bosses at work, she encountered resistance from a source she had not anticipated –her co-workers.

Some of it was just petty –“Why would you want to cover your hair?” one woman said to her, adding “It’s so beautiful” no doubt to take the sting out of her rudeness. But the woman had never complimented her hair before, so it rang hollow to Aaisha.

And then she told me about another, a man who had just joined the company a few months before and who seemed quite uncomfortable with hijab and glared at her whenever he passed her desk. Finally, she decided to talk to him about it.

“You keep staring at me, Jeffrey,” she said, smiling confidently as she walked up to his desk. “I get the impression you’re unhappy about something.”

He acted surprised at first, and then his scowl returned and he pointed at her head. “You didn’t used to wear that scarf, Aaisha,” he said, trying to keep his tone friendly.

Her smile broadened and she pointed to his tie. “I don’t remember you wearing that tie before, either, Jeffrey.”

He blinked uncomprehendingly. “It’s just a tie. I wear different ties all the time…”

She didn’t skip a beat. “It’s just a hijab,” she said, obviously proud of the word and pointing to her head.. “And you may have noticed, I also wear different ones all the time…”

His eyes narrowed and his forehead wrinkled. “A tie is different, Aaisha…”

She waited for him to continue, but he seemed to think his answer was complete –and for him, it probably was. Finally, she decided to ask the obvious question. “Oh…?  And how is it different?”

He actually rolled his eyes at the stupidity of the question. “It’s what men are expected to wear to work.”

The smile never left her face and she pointed to another man at the next desk. “John never wears a tie…”

Jeffrey shrugged. “We’re different, that’s all… And anyway, I’m my own person.”

Aaisha stood there, for a moment, and then blinked. “And so am I, I guess…”

Jeffrey seemed surprised at her answer, then shook his head. “Nobody makes me wear the tie…”

At this point, Aaisha laughed. “And nobody makes me wear a hijab, Jeffrey.”

He didn’t seem to know how to react. “But… Well, how about your husband?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I’m not married… And my father and brothers are still back in England -just in case you want to involve them,” she added with a laugh.

Jeffrey began to sense he was losing the argument. “It’s a family tradition -and also a society thing- Aaisha. My father always wore a tie to work –and his father before him…” But his voice was less confident.

Aisha sighed. “Should I tell you about my mother, and her sisters? They all wore the hijab back in London –and not because they were forced to, they’d be quick to tell you. They just felt more a part of the community wearing hijab, so it, too, was a society-thing as you called it…”

He blinked, but slowly. “Your society, Aaisha, not ours!”

The smile returned, and she nodded her head towards John again. “And what about John? Does he belong to another society, as well? We’re all immigrants, Jeff; we’re all other if you go back a generation or two. And thank god we don’t all have to dress the same,” she said, touching the sleeve of his fraying shirt with her hand and winking coyly at him.

And for the first time, he smiled at her.