Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why I Care (And Why You Should Too)

I have been noticing lately that there seems to be certain social taboos around discussing certain topics. The ones I have witness most predominately are religion, politics, philosophy, morality (specifically abortion and gay marriage), medicine vs. alternative medicine and science vs. pseudoscience. On more than one occasion, I have either been told or seen someone else be told to not talk about such issues as the offended individual believed they should not be discussed in polite society. This of course doesn’t sit right with me as these are perhaps my most favourite topics to discuss (and what I write about predominately on my blog). As such, I wish to discuss this phenomenon and offer my take on the situation.

When I have probed individuals who find said topics taboo, the reasons given as to why fall into the following broad categories, to which I will give a response;
  • These are topics that are personal in nature; therefore people should be free to decide for themselves what they wish to believe
This kind of objection has a tinge of a superficial understanding of postmodernist ‘relative truth’ to it; it doesn’t matter what individuals choose to believe as there is no real truth. While, to some extent, I believe that this is the case (or more that, we will never be able to determine what the truth is in any absolute sense), these individuals are ignoring the impact that an individual’s beliefs have on those around them. The decisions we make are based on what we believe; for example, if I believe that gays do not have the right to marry, I will not vote for a politician or party that wishes to allow gays to marry, thus affecting homosexuals who wish to get married. As such, while our beliefs are our own, the fact that they have an impact on those around us obligates us to ensure that these beliefs are indeed correct (or, at the very least, defensible). This necessitates discussions on the issues, specifically public to ensure as many people are exposed to all the possible arguments that exist.
  • These are topics that people will never change their opinions on
I disagree with this line of reasoning two fold; firstly, I think that people can and do change their minds and often do as a result of discussions of said issues. Hell, even I have changed my mind on these issues; I used to be a pro-life, think evolution was wrong and be against gay marriage. Now, I have the polar opposite view on these topics, as well as minor tweaks to my other beliefs. And I would not have changed my mind on these topics if people hadn’t challenged me and pointed out the flaws in my thought process.

Secondly, if you are having a discussion with someone who states that they will never change their position on the topic, you should bring the topic up with them even more. If you are the type of individual who believes you can never have your mind changed, you are by definition closed minded and need to revaluate your life. If you think you have a perfect understanding of reality to the extent that you can’t be wrong, and as such, do not need to discuss the issue, you are quite arrogant.

That being said, I do believe it is possible to reach a point where discussion of a topic between two individuals becomes fruitless. This generally occurs when it has been identified precisely where the point of disagreement arises, both individuals have explained why they disagree with the opposing point of view and still disagree (agreeing to disagree essentially). However, if the discussion has arrived at this point, it has occurred to a sufficient level as to make the original objection irrelevant.
  • These are topics that are too serious to discuss
This objection is often put forward in specific social settings; i.e. Facebook, parties or anywhere where the individual feels should be a causal environment. This objection essentially comes down to taste; what constitutes a topic that is too serious or whether they derive enjoyment from such discussions. I do not find these discussions to be too serious and always enjoy them. As it is an issue of personal taste, there really isn’t much more that can be said other than if you are the only person who appears to find the topic too serious, exclude yourself from the conversation rather than demand others stop for your sake alone. The same is true for the opposite, of course; if you are the only one who wants to talk about these issues, don’t force others to.
  • These topics are unimportant to the individual who does not wish to discuss them
Like the previous objection, this one comes down to a simple taste preference. However, often people underestimate how these topics could affect them. To be fair, there are probably some circumstances where the issue is entirely unimportant to a person; for example, someone who is not homosexual and knows no one who is homosexual would be understandably uninteresting in the topic of gay marriage. However, I think situations like this are particularly rare; in that, most beliefs have an effect on the majority of society. And even if they aren’t, they still require the discussion to determine that they are unimportant; effectively, a meta-discussion about whether the discussion is worth having. If they aren’t even willing to engage in the meta-discussion because they think it could never possibly affect them, it becomes the same as the ‘never change opinions’ objection.

I think after reading this, most people should understand where I am coming from. If, however, you feel I have missed an important reason why discussions of this nature should not occur, please feel free to let me know (if you can; I'm unaware if a meta-discussion about a topic you find taboo would be breaking the taboo).

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