Ego vs Info: It’s okay to admit what you don’t know

Striving for more informed political conversations in the age of post-truth politics

A few weeks ago, I walked into a debate between two students at Vanderbilt discussing what should be done about gun violence in the wake of the tragic events in Florida last month and around the country this year. I sat down to listen to what both sides had to say, and quickly heard some of the most sweeping generalizations I’ve ever heard, from “all guns need to be banned immediately” to “if we take away the second amendment, there will be way more school shootings,” which had no factual basis. While it is encouraging to see students discussing relevant issues and choosing to be politically active, as a listener, I seem to see the same pitfall in every conversation: neither participant is willing to admit where their knowledge on a subject reaches its limit.

In an academic environment, especially one as competitive as Vanderbilt, it is common for students to feel uncomfortable saying that they have not read up on a subject, or are too uninformed to make a comment. I didn’t come in expecting a full MLA-style bibliography from each person talking, but it didn’t take me long to realize the conversation was unproductive when neither person used any concrete examples to back their claims. Furthermore, many people simply refuse to participate in political conversations because they have little information about the subject at hand or feel uncomfortable admitting the gaps in their knowledge or facing confrontation. Abstaining from healthy discussions is even worse. Instead of making up information or avoiding topics, I implore every one of you to take a different approach next time something you know little about comes up.

You may be wondering where all of these unhealthy tendencies of debate stem from. Some people believe it comes down to a psychological need to seem intelligent. Sean Illing, a veteran and professor, claims that even more than a desire to prove things to ourselves, we “depend very much on what other people are thinking.”

Yet another source fueling poor methods of debating is the political candidates engaging in the very same behavior on the national level. In the pinnacle of political debates, citizens are likely to watch presidential hopefuls on their televisions and see them as role models in the political arena. In the age of “Post-Truth Politics,” however, these politicians rely more on evoking emotion than providing credible sources and sound logic. If you’re the last person in the U.S. who needs convincing that politicians have a bad tendency of lying to the public, here is a list of the hundreds of statements our current president, Donald Trump, has made that come back as false after being fact checked. Instead of looking up to people who lie and employ overly defensive strategies behind the podium, students should set their own standards of how to have healthy political conversations with their peers.

Within Vanderbilt, it seems to me that certain communities are even more likely to practice these poor methods of debating. Male students are often protective of their egos, and are ashamed to tell others that they don’t know as much about a certain topic. In-class discussions seem to be the most successful at being constructive, probably because they often have a TA or professor leading the conversation. But is it not shameful at a university full of educated students to be unable to have healthy debates without the presence of a moderator?

Is it not shameful at a university full of educated students to be unable to have healthy debates without the presence of a moderator?

Although much of the political information that is debated is touched on in class, many of these conversations occur among groups of friends in social situations. At Vanderbilt, where so many students are members of fraternities and sororities, the Greek system provides a unique forum for these discussions to take place.  In Greek life especially, large personalities rarely see eye-to-eye on every issue, and to remain quiet and listen to somebody with more knowledge on the issue can often feel like a loss in a competition. I distinctly remember a conversation my fraternity pledge class had about the refugee crisis in the U.S. As people took turns trying to level one another by increasing their voice level, I quietly sat in the back. When one of my friends prodded for my input, I almost fell into the tendency of making claims on the basis of things I’ve heard others say in passing, or on television.

As I was beginning, however, I caught myself. I decided to be honest, and told the group I hadn’t looked at many of the statistics or read up on potential solutions at the national level, but definitely want to learn more. I tend to be a very stubborn person, especially in my beliefs, and to admit my ignorance of the issue in  a conversation like this felt a bit uncomfortable–even slightly embarrassing. These feelings were completely unwarranted: the reception was incredible. Nobody looked down on me for admitting I wasn’t informed enough to pass judgement on the subject, and several people even spoke up saying they were in the same position as I was. Going forward, people seemed more calm and honest about what they knew. Often times, it only takes one person to make a difference in these debates. I encourage you to be that person. A great start is simply saying you haven’t read much about or even thought much about the topic, and that you are hoping to learn more. You will immediately be more respected within the debate, despite your apprehensions.

Once you feel comfortable employing the first step of being honest about your knowledge, several other measures can be taken in order to elevate your debates to the next level. Jennifer Kurst, a Clinical Psychologist from California, lists a few great techniques, such as linking your opinions to your concerns, giving the benefit of the doubt, and emphasizing your desire for the conversation to be constructive. Incorporating these strategies into the way you approach debates takes a bit of focus and practice, but the results will be monumental.

Another advantage of being honest about your knowledge is that you may learn a new perspective or realize that you should do more research on a particular theory or current event. One of the best parts of attending a school like Vanderbilt is being surrounded by students with different backgrounds and opinions to which you may not have previously been exposed. Taking a step back and prioritizing listening over speaking is the best way to take advantage of this opportunity.

Unfortunately, refusing to admit what one doesn’t know in a debate doesn’t begin and end in the college years. During a time in which partisanship has led to extreme polarization in political discussions, conceding a point during conversation is becoming more and more rare. As college students, we have an obligation to pursue a better tomorrow. Healthy conversations about issues are a huge first step towards coming up with solutions for them, and admitting what you don’t know in a discussion will make every debate you participate in much more meaningful.

Bryan Hollis is a first-year in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at bryan.p.hollis@vanderbilt.edu. 

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