If you look through my posts of the past few weeks you might discern a pattern: I’ve been thinking and writing a good deal about rhetorical and dialectical pathologies — the various ways that arguments go awry and people misunderstand one another or get themselves into unnecessary conflicts. I think this may all have started last year, when I read Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is about many things but chiefly cognitive errors.
These problems are, I think, fairly easy to identify, but tremendously difficult to address — especially when, as if often the case, people enjoy conflict and delight in heaping contempt on their ideological opponents. I might have some ready thoughts for someone who wants to be more charitable, kind, and patient — but how many people really desire those virtues?
A friend recently passed along to me an email from a young Christian who teaches in a public high school and is, perhaps naïvely, trying to smuggle some aspects of the Christian account of the world into her teaching — with decidedly unsatisfactory results:
In an effort to get the kids in my class to do something, I taught the cardinal virtues today and asked them to choose one that they believe they possess and write an essay about it. I had two students approach me and say that they do not possess a single virtue. I asked, “You don’t have anything about yourself that you’re proud of?” Both of them responded (I’m not kidding) that they are bad people and are proud that they don’t have any of the cardinal virtues. One boy asked if he could write about his vices.
I leave this as an exercise for the reader: Where would you start if you were trying to show such young people that “there’s got to be some better way for people to live”?