Ego, Dispassion, Cynicism

At the heart of a lot of controversy is a fundamental breakdown of communication. Inflated egos, visceral responses, and a lack of skepticism all lead to intensified conflict. I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate much on that point, most people understand that these things interfere with discourse. Unfortunately, as with anything we’ve decided is bad, we tend to go overboard in the pursuit to eliminate it.

Ego has a purpose. Obviously an inflated ego can lead you to a number of fallacious forms of reasoning, but I think the usefulness of some egotism is actually undervalued. Some is the key word here. It can quite easily get out of control. I do think though, that having some element of self-esteem or pride (or whatever you might call it) staked in the outcome of a given argument is important. The function must be distinct though. If your ego is inextricable from the way you actually formulate thoughts, it’s become invasive. If you’re able to keep ego at bay when constructing the dialectic (investigation of truth), yet you have at least some personal investment in the outcome of the investigation, ego becomes a tool.

I can think of plenty of examples of brazen, audacious debaters that infuse egotism successfully, but I can’t think of any quite as adept as the late Christopher Hitchens. Sometimes he came across obnoxious and rude no doubt, but I think he was often able to ride that fine line that allowed him to be contemptuous without detracting from the discussion at hand. Some might attribute that ability to charm, humour, and candor or disagree with the example entirely, but his style certainly resonates with many.

Dispassion is nearly the same issue. Attempting to have discussions void of emotion will in fact, in my estimation, yield less productive results. No, I’m not saying screaming is an acceptable way to voice one’s opinion, but to attempt some kind of absolute dispassion will inherently misconstrue issues. If we’re debating physician assisted suicide, and you have a strong opinion one way or the other, don’t act as if personal feelings aren’t at play. I’m not saying that emotion should somehow trump factual information, but compassion is undeniably an agent in the vast majority of contemporary controversies.

This brings me to cynicism. It’s not hard to become cynical in a world so wrought with deception, especially in formative years (adolescence). I tend to be pretty forgiving of cynicism, pessimism, nihilism, or whatever malady stems from betrayal. But when people are proud of how cynical and distrusting they’ve become, touting it as if elevated out of naivety, it interferes with judgement. I know cynicism doesn’t imply a lack of emotion, but cynics often seem to pass themselves off as impartial, when in fact their skepticism is rooted in strong emotion. Sadly, I think cynicism of this sort can lead to an unhealthy apathy.

Not the most clearly defined topic I know, but I believe these are three areas with fairly significant roles in communication that all contain a little more nuance than advertised.

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