The Believing Game

This is the text of my April 2, 2017, sermon/presentation to the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. The audio version is on YouTube, starting at about the 25 minute mark. I began by presenting an inkblot and asking what people saw in the inkblot and requesting they explain how they see it to the congregation. My conversation with the children begins around the 16 minute mark. Their image was from the cover of this book.  

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So why are we talking about ducks, rabbits, and inkblots?  Today, I’ll posit that the way we talk about pictures of duck/rabbits and inkblots can hold the key to how we save the world, or at least make it a bit better.

These images provide us an excellent opportunity to practice the easy version of  what Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, calls The Believing Game. The Believing Game is a thought exercise that focuses on a temporary belief in another person’s stance or an argument rather than focusing only on doubt.

I first came across Elbow’s Believing Game when I began teaching argumentative writing and critical thinking to gifted young teens. This phase of life is often marked by stubborn adherence opinions and ideas. At this age, most kids are still their parents’ thought shadows, voicing opinions held dear by the family. A few, the born doubters and disbelievers,  have found their way to the direct opposites of those family opinions, making dinner conversation lively and, most likely, heartburn inducing. Either way, these bright young people are sure about life. They also generally believe what those they trust tell them is true. They often have a loyalty to the stances of those who protect and care for them. Before the November election, I’d have said these kids were at a unique stage of life with this level of entrenchment in opinion, but, as I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice, it seems this is how most of us operate most of the time: We know our position, and we stand our ground firmly. But perhaps, sometimes, we are all are doing it wrong.

Where entrenched adults excell that young teens do not is what Elbow refers to as the Doubting Game. The Doubting Game embraces skepticism and critical thinking as the primary ways of meeting any stance other than our own. It is the game we play when our Uncle Matt pounds his fist on the table at a family dinner and proclaims that he doesn’t think this Obamacare is any good, and then launches into a lecture about limits on government and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the importance of making one’s own way. If Uncle Matt is amicable, we might play the game aloud, asking him how he expects the poor who don’t qualify for Medicaid to cover their medical bills. We might shoot down his premise of bootstrap-lifting by discussing Medicare, which provided coverage for both of his parents, including Mom, who stayed home with children (including Uncle Matt) and was never the paid workforce, all while volunteering in her community for decades. We pick away at his every point with wild abandon. We barrage him with facts, because that should work, right? Mostly, we just play verbal defense. He says it, and we doubt it. Nothing changes.

If Uncle Matt is a less-congenial sort of guy, we might just cast sideways glances at each other while passing the wine around the table until someone extolls the virtues of Cousin Chris’s fabulous green bean casserole. This time, the critical thinking and doubting is done in silence, each person obliterating Uncle Matt’s points, one by one, until it’s time for pie. When Uncle Matt falls asleep in the recliner, the doubters whisper while divvying up leftovers and washing the dishes. Regardless of Uncle Matt’s mood, we’ve doubted all he says, soup to nuts.

Let me be clear. Doubting and critical thinking are necessary.  By critical thinking, I mean the sort of thinking that looks for errors in logic and reason as well as in fact or source. Critical thinking isn’t a matter of just thinking or shouting “He’s wrong!” It’s a matter of knowing what makes a sound argument and being able to question what is true and what is, as some now say, an “alternative fact.” When we think critically, we are using those tools in a scrupulously responsible manner, without resorting to the very logical errors we pompously point out in others. The Doubting Game is a serious manner, and it should be played with scruples in place.

The Doubting Game is what causes us to discredit and denounce the latest white supremacist, misogynist rant on Breitbart, eschew the newest miracle diet, and refuse to send money to that Nigerian prince . It is also what drives scientific progress. As Elbow notes, “Methodological doubting is central to the classical definition of (the) scientific method”. Science demands we continually wonder about what causes what, and it demands we ignore our tendency to mistake correlation — two events occurring together — with causation — one event causing another event. Without skepticism and doubt, we would likely still be applying leeches to those with fevers while believing that the Sun goes around the Earth. Science is a doubting game, and doubt and skepticism do us well both as individuals and as a society.

Except when they don’t. It’s easy to doubt what we don’t like or agree with or what is from what we see as an unreliable source. It’s harder to be a skeptic when we trust a source or it agrees with our well-considered and tightly-held opinion. Uncle Matt’s proclamations are easy to doubt because so often he holds a stance opposite our own. He speaks. We doubt. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what? First, doubting out of habit and bias can cause us to miss legitimate issues we’ve overlooked . Naysayers — those who hold opposing positions to our own — offer us much to consider, if we’re willing to listen to them and ponder another point of view. If we simply doubt, we miss things. We miss not only the thread of their argument but also the values and understandings of the world that sit under that argument. We miss, essentially, the person behind the opinion as well as miss the arguments from the other side. We should value both, but we can’t do that when we simply doubt.

The second problem with habitual doubting is that we tend to only doubt those who disagree with us. We struggle to doubt those who hold the same stances and biases as we do, as it just feels bad. We really struggle to doubt ourselves and the sources we rely upon. It is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate being wrong or just uninformed. However, doubting our own point of view and understanding of the situation is not optional. It’s painful and uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, but it is entirely necessary. As fallible humans in an ever-changing world, we must doubt ourselves with the same veracity as we doubt others.

When we share our musings about inkblots or images in the clouds, we play the Believing Game, albeit on Level 1 difficulty. Whether or not you can see what another person sees in the inkblot or the clouds isn’t that important, in the bigger scheme of things. We might be mystified by what another sees, but we’re likely not sizing up the other’s intelligence or integrity or sanity based on what they see. We may be able, with their assistance, to see what they see, if we’re willing to squinch up our eyes, turn our heads, and try really hard. Or maybe we can’t see what they see, even with their explanation. At least we are trying.

By honestly trying to understand another’s point of view — what another sees and why they see it — we are playing Peter Elbow’s Believing Game, which, according to Elbow, can help us in more ways than in understanding the inkblot interpretations. No one’s pride or values or sense of worth is on the line with an inkblot or a cloud in the sky. Neither are votes and policy or human lives. When I have my students play the Believing Game, I move beyond inkblots and other images. I ask them to consider a tightly-held belief. I make a few suggestions — gun control, meat consumption, or voting age — and send them to a few websites that explore — with sources — both sides of many contentious issues. And then I have them write a paragraph arguing the stance opposite their own.

The rules are simple but challenging: You must explore the other point of view thoroughly. You must write your paragraph as if you really believe what you’re writing.   Sarcasm or blatant simplification of the other view is not allowed. Neither is repeating simplistic rhetoric. You have to sit deeply with that point of view and create a paragraph that represents it credibly.

I tell them it will be hard.

I tell them it will be very hard.

And then, I ask them to write a paragraph reflecting on the process of doing the assignment.

I ask “How hard was it?” (“Really hard.”  “Harder than I thought.” “I didn’t think I could do it initially.” “I tried, but I don’t think I did it well. It was too hard.”)

I ask if they learned anything new. (“Some countries don’t allow citizens to own guns.” “Meat production uses more resources than I thought.” And perhaps most informative and insightful of all: “It’s hard to write about another point of view without being sarcastic or mean.”)

And, the big question: Did you find yourself changing your mind about anything?

Most say no. Their overall viewpoint remains the same. Gun control laws should remain in place. Meat production may harm the environment, but it’s a personal preference, and meat is full of protein, and, well, yummy, so they’ll keep eating it. Many will tell me they learned about the opposition to their point of view, and several students note that they have a better understanding about the complexity of the issue. They now understand why there is so much dissention. That’s a big leap. When someone can move from the sense that “all people who think X are crazy and stupid” to understanding WHY some people think X, while you think Y, progress has been made.

And every semester, a few students say yes to my biggest question. They do change their mind about something. They never knew that violence rates rise in states that adopt conceal and carry — they were sure it was the other way, and now they wonder just what’s right.  Maybe guns should be more tightly controlled.  Those who now realize that there are environmental concerns about raising farm animals for food sometimes plan to have a few meatless days a week.

As I noted earlier, the goal of the Believing Game isn’t changing minds or giving up your well-considered opinions or values. While that can happen when you listen or read carefully about a position different than your own, changing your mind is not the point. It is understanding the other point of view so you can appreciate the arguments of others and see the holes or even flaws in your own thinking. Peter Elbow articulates it this way:

The flaws in our own thinking usually come from our assumptions — our ways of thinking that we accept without noticing. But it’s hard to doubt what we can’t see because we unconsciously take it for granted. The believing game comes to the rescue here. Our best hope in finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view — ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us.

The Believing Game has a role not just in the classroom but in our workplaces It also has a place at our family dinner tables, in our churches, and even in our social media. By allowing us to sit in the argument of another, it brings us understanding of the issues another has and the language they use to talk about it. As we sit in that argument, we are more likely to question our own thinking than if we simply ignored the other or talked over them.  

When we believe before doubting, we might see that we  have missed a valid concern. We might find that we’ve trusted a poor source. We might even turn over in our minds a long-held value or belief and consider if it needs a bit of tweaking or a more extensive adjustment. All of those processes are painful, but they are essential to honing arguments with the integrity that comes from an open and free search for meaning and truth. Here’s the comfort: By enduring this discomfort, we will argue more effectively, and we’ll even likely come up with better policy that has messaging that reaches beyond our own echo chamber while better supporting our fellow citizens.

While doubting is the tool of science and, at least lately, responsible citizenship, the Believing Game plays an essential role as we work to hold the nation — and the world — together. We cannot, in our well-meaning and often-deserved skeptic state of mind, forget that we only come to a better place in the long run if we can work to understand the point of view of others. Take Uncle Matt. Instead of countering his every point, arguing about statistics, and having indigestion before dessert, what if we just listened to him for a moment? What if we even asked him some neutral questions of clarification? What if then we, in the silence of our heads, pretended we share Uncle Matt’s beliefs.  It might go like this:

“I don’t like Obamacare because my premiums are now really high, and it’s hard for me to find a doctor who will take my insurance. My buddies, who also are now piecing together part-time jobs, are in the same boat, and some of them are really sick. Their deductibles are so high, however, that they won’t go and get checked out. Also, I really work hard for my money, and now with more people getting Medicaid, I am working to pay for their care — and they don’t pay anything! Why do they get free healthcare and I don’t? I’m hardly rich. This really feels unfair to me.”

Did you learn something new by looking at this attempt at believing? Do Uncle Matt’s concerns expose a different point of view? If you were aware of these sorts of concerns — high costs of products with high deductibles and trouble finding care — great. If this is news to you, you might find yourself initially doubting rather than believing as you try to articulate his stance. That’s okay. The goal is to make that attempt to verbalize another point of view without dissecting it at the same time. That’s not easy, and you’ll likely have to remind yourself of that task often at first. Try to sit in the stance. What is it like to see this issue from Uncle Matt’s point of view?  As Elbow says, the Believing Game asks you to sit with an idea, not marry it. So sit.

If you’re without a living counterargument generator in your life, you can play this game effectively on your own. Simply start reading from sources outside of your comfort zone. Most of us live in a filter bubble, especially if we consort mostly with like-minded people and find our news via our social media feed. Filter bubbles feel good, but they don’t often broaden our understanding of other points of view, and sitting in a filter bubble is a sure way to forgetting that there are more ways of seeing an issue than your own way. Instead of sticking to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR (which are all excellent news outlets), reach a bit right and read The Hill, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and even The National Review. (If you are read The Huffington Post, then do due diligence and read The National Review as well.)  This sort of reading allows you to practice your Believing Game skills without an Uncle Matt. It also allows you to verify facts and separate them from noise and opinion.

All of us in this room are likely struggling with feelings of anger, panic, frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness these last few months. Some of us are taking activist roles for the first time. (That’s me.)  Others are picking up where they left off in the early 1970s, when they were protesting the Vietnam war. Some have been fighting for justice since they could shake an angry fist and speak. And some of us aren’t sure how to use or even find our voices. Whatever your experience and wherever you sit, I ask you to try believing where you have only previously doubted. Listen to your Uncle Matt. Hear behind the rage of the once-was friend. Step into the shoes of those who voted in a way that makes you crazy. Do this with integrity. Do it to learn. Do it to question your own tightly-help opinions, values, assumptions, and truths. Do it even though it hurts and feels like a betrayal of yourself. It’s not.

Believing alone won’t save the world, but it can help us hone our own arguments and clarify the complexity of opposing viewpoints. It can help us see our own blind spots and force us to dig deeper than our favorite, cognitively comfortable source. It can even repair some of the hurts we’ve all experienced and inflicted over the last several months. And doubting? Keep doing that. Skepticism is not just the tool of the scientist. It is also the tool of the savvy citizen. Doubt is ever more required in our “post truth” world, so continue to refine your critical thinking skills.  But also take time, at least now and then, to believe.

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