May 30, 2012

The Benefit of the Doubt

I find myself increasingly disillusioned by what passes for political discourse nowadays.

Instead of trying to engage in genuine dialogue with other people, too many individuals seem content to engage in caustic monologues that speak only to themselves.  Read the comments section on just about any online newspaper, and you'll find the equivalent of adolescent name-calling culminating in verbal fisticuffs.  It feels as if we are engaged in an interpersonal nuclear arms race whose ultimate escalated conclusion is the permanent destruction of basic human values like respect and understanding.

It's time for some detente.

When people think of giving the benefit of the doubt, they tend to think of it as being generous towards others.  "Yeah, I didn't think she was really right on this one, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt."

The real benefit of the doubt is when we afford it to ourselves, when we embrace the fact that our hardened certainty that surely must be universal truth is in reality anything but.  When doing so becomes a habit, our curiosity seems to increase and we become more interested in, and capable of, entertaining signals and information that do not fit the neat pattern we have created for the world.  If we can place our own truths on trial and look for reasonable doubt in their complete validity, we may avoid conviction for our possible narrow-mindedness.

Doing so is difficult because we find comfort in certainty, but it can be a false companion as portrayed so eloquently in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Doubt.  I'll never forget this closing scene in the film version starring Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius:


 

If we never allow ourselves to have doubts, if we're unwilling to explore and entertain other possibilities, we become rhetorical robots, simply repeating our stalwart positions without advancing understanding.  Talking points replace thoughtful exchanges.  Instead of looking for new information, we gleefully trumpet even the slightest signs that validate our pre-ordained world view.

When I encounter a position very different from my own on an issue I have found "Help me understand where you're coming from" to be one of the most helpful expressions I can use as a response.  While I don't always find my mind changed, I do always find it expanded.  And isn't that what's it is all about?  As Meg Wheatley so eloquently says in her book Turning to One Another, "We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes.”

So the next time you most feel compelled to shout "You are so wrong" you might instead whisper to yourself "Maybe I'm not right" and continue the conversation from that position.  By giving yourself the benefit of the doubt you will undoubtedly benefit.


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