I am a very kind person. Almost. Whenever I get involved into any discussion, I try my best not to let it turn into an argument. I listen to the other person and let them have their own opinion and point of view. Sometimes. At other times, I get deeply annoyed and irritated, and lose my temper. Most of the time. What is my criterion of a healthy discussion? Besides the generally accepted social norms like not to make personal comments, not to use obscene, vulgar or provocative words, not to make remarks related to caste, creed, religion, gender, social status etc, I also give importance to information. An informed discussion and argument is always a healthy one. But most of the time you would find yourself either witnessing a discussion or yourself getting involved in a discussion with a person or group of people who don’t even have basic information or knowledge about that subject. I agree that having a complete knowledge about any subject or field is nearly impossible and also there is no end to the learning process. The more you explore, the more new questions and doubts arise in your mind. But I am talking about having basic information about the field which you are discussing. Otherwise you are fooling yourself only, given that the other person could be well informed. Well, I have also witnessed arguments where none of the parties had any information about the subject and both of them were giving heated arguments to support their points of view. In such cases, I do the wisest thing possible under the given circumstances — run away.
If it is difficult for you to understand what I am talking about, just imagine two people discussing the merits or demerits of iPhone while none of them has ever used one, never seen one. Their arguments are based on the image or impression they have made about the gadget. Of course, this is elementary and stupid example, but hope it gives you an idea where I am taking you.
So how do I deal with it? First of all, if you yourself are informed about the subject — not necessarily having an in-depth knowledge, instead just a basic information is sufficient — it would not be any difficult for you to identify whenever such a person or situation turns up. And then you can signal alert and act accordingly — either shout, scream or simply run away. But let me correct myself, it is not even necessary to have basic knowledge yourself in order to identify such people; with time and experience, you would be able to read the body language, tone and way of expressions of the person and would be able to judge how deep the waters are. Yes, it is possible, but it comes with time and experience. I often resort to this trick whenever I want to escape an argument with a fool who is trying to project himself like a scholar.
How do I achieve it? It is simple. You might be having some information about the subject — not necessarily deep — may be a keyword here and there, some date, some name, some place, anything, just make a straight face and make a remark using that information. The remark should be such that it gives an impression of an elementary knowledge. And you are done! And if you yourself don’t have any knowledge, even then never mind, arguments don’t require information. If the fool sitting in front of you can do this, there is no reason why you also won’t be able to.
Let us consider a simple example. Suppose someone is trying to pull you into a debate on whether Gandhi should have withdrawn the non-cooperation movement or not, and you don’t have the complete knowledge about it, so you don’t know what to say. Don’t worry, I will talk about this subject in another post. Yes, you had read about it in school, but have already forgotten about it completely. Also, you might be of the opinion that that was an event of the past, nearly 100 years back and there is no point in bringing that up, today. You hold the opinion that it is far better and practical to discuss issues before us now rather than digging graves of events of the past. But how to convey it to the person sitting in front of you who would not take any negative answer? You have to say something, preferably either in favour or opposition of his assertion. I suggest that you proceed as follows —
You hold the cup of tea in both hands, take a deep breath, lower your voice, look straight into the eyes of the person and with a serious face, say —
“But surely you remember what Gandhi said in Peshawar in 1925!”
And it would end there. The trick is to begin your statement by putting the ball into his court with the words — ‘surely you know’, ‘you remember’, ‘it’s basic/elementary knowledge’. Of course, the person would not be knowing it, because there is no such information in the first place — it simply does not exist! But he would not acknowledge it as it would reveal his ignorance which he is so zealously protecting. In the remote case, he comes down and expresses his ignorance and asks you for details (“No, I don’t know!”), then you need not lose heart, instead give the second strike. Still maintaining the eye contact and low voice, just ask —
“You want to say, you really don’t know what Gandhi said in Peshawar?”
Your tone this time is such that you are wondering how come that person is so ignorant about such an elementary information. He would come under pressure. If he is brave, and answers “No! I don’t know.” You give the third strike —
“But surely you know what he said in Lahore session?”
Now he would be confused. He does not know that either. But most probably he would be deeply annoyed by this time and about to lose temper. He would also begin to sense that you are merely playing games with him. So it is in your interest not to stretch the argument beyond this point and pack it up as quickly as possible. You have to wait till the person says in raised voice — “No, I don’t know! Now would you please tell me?”
At this point, exhale, move back and support yourself against the chair. Move your gaze from his face and with a disappointed tone in your voice, say —
And start talking about the weather, cricket, taste of the tea or anything of interest to ‘you’! He would not protest as this has given him an ‘escape’ and opportunity to hide his ignorance. Most probably he would also avoid inviting or rather pulling you into any debates of any kind in the future. At least for the next few months. And then you can think of something else. But be careful, never ask the same question more than once, otherwise you might be caught!
But why am I so confident that this trick would work? In fact, in all the cases when I have applied this trick, it has always worked. The underlying theory is very simple. The more the people read or learn or experience, the more they realise how many things there are yet to be learnt, explored, and experienced. This brings a sense of humility and modesty. They hesitate in boasting their learning because they know quite well what a little fraction of the existing knowledge have they acquired … in fact, only an infinitesimally tiny bit. At the same time, they also understand the diversity of the world — there are so many different things and subjects to explore — so it is quite normal if others do not carry similar interests as them. Live and let live.
The people whom this post is dedicated to are the other sort. You can recall that empty vessels make much noise. I remember having read an online article on harm caused by backlit devices like smartphone and laptop on our sleep cycle. I admit that the article was well written and was based on the latest scientific findings of the day. However, in the list of the backlit devices he included smartphone, laptop and Kindle. The last entry made me frown. Really? But I read on. Maybe it does cause harm in some way which I haven’t experienced yet. Out of curiosity I scrolled down to reach the comments section and there I found a very polite remark by a reader wondering whether Kindle indeed causes equal harm as smartphone. The writer replied — “I haven’t used Kindle, but the effect must be the same”! I burst into laughter. Not only had he so confidently added Kindle in the list of devices in the main text, but also “just assumed” it to be harmful while giving his response. It is not a question whether Kindle does cause harm or not; instead, the issue is his asserting something without having any experience . . . any experience at all.
There is more to it, which I would continue in the next post. Stay connected.