In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 1 May 98

Civil and Gentle Discourse

JCC:   Now, on the issues of e-mail, spamming, and flaming, what excited me about {this group} was the a priori stress on fostering a spirit of collegiality, conspicuous elsewhere by its absence! I had first suggested the name Collegium* for a proposed group last spring, having lost hope as well as patience with another group. History kept repeating! ... Delightful, bright people withdrawing participation and presence from the pitiful mélée wrought by the socially immature. Do people not understand what is lost and forever destroyed by abusive behavior? We tried to ignore it under the rubric of democratic free expression as antics within high-IQ groups become displayed for the amusement of readers of The Wall Street Journal**! We hope here to follow a different course. I don't have any anti-spam software myself, merely discarding any vitriolic, commercial, or otherwise objectionable posts! It's a waste of effort to return them to the sender, whose address often proves invalid.

LM:   ... If I try to push it onto more serious topics, people sometimes go along with me, for a while, at least. But often, people seem to be frightened by real conversation. Does anyone else get this reaction, and why do you think it is so? ...

I also enjoyed Kevin's rant about male comaraderie. Women have had to put up with less of that, but the usual level of conversation that we have to endure is no better. I typically try not to engage in the bull-shitting, i.e., joking, that seems to pass for conversation among many, hoping that the conversation will work down to a deeper level. Generally, however, it never gets there. If I try to push it onto more serious topics, people sometimes go along with me, for a while, at least. But often, people seem to be frightened by real conversation. Does anyone else get this reaction, and why do you think it is so?

KB:   I get his reaction consistently ... to the dismay of my wife, I, the majority of the time, just sit and occasionally smile and nod my head. For example last night we attended a surprise birthday party. We sat next to a couple of friends of my wife. The guy told me, us, at least thirty times in two hours he was going to play golf Sunday. The discussion was intertwined with the beer, and how much money was spent on a shopping excursion. I have nothing intelligent to add! I sat nursing a coke and eating pizza. Antisocial?

IMHO most people need to know someone quite well before engaging in thoughtful conversation. I have no problem with diving right into a deep talk. At risk of sounding like an elitist, the conversation I find myself in (present company excluded) is mostly knee jerk reactions based on what they have heard other people say. Also many people get frightened by bad experiences. Enter those who simply must argue the other side without ever validating the other person's opinions...

LM:   But Kevin, in your experience, do people act frightened when you talk about something more substantial than golfing or shopping (that's what I meant). If they do, why do you think this is the case? I guess I'm asking, why does real talk scare people?

CLF:   I'd agree that many people need time to assess the other person (looking for both overt and subtle clues about personality and intelligence) before "risking" deep conversation. During the "assessment" period, they may remain quiet or may also play the "small talk game" (meanwhile thinking "How boring! How many times can we talk about the same thing!"); following this, they may tentatively ask a few mildly probing questions or lightheartedly propose an unconventional view, as a means of "testing" the other's suitability for deeper discussions.

Given that some people seem to believe that "My way is the only right way, and I will fight to the death to convert everyone to my way of thinking", given the ultra-moralists who seem to view a disagreement on one ethical issue as a mark of the other's globally vile character, given the vehemence and anger with which some people will battle against those who disagree with them even on the most minute points, and given that we often will have to get along with these coworkers/ neighbors/ relatives for a long time to come - it's not surprising that many are wary of revealing their deeper thoughts. Not surprising either that some of the most interesting conversations can occur in distant hotel lobbies or in airports, with strangers whom we will never meet again; not surprising either that the faceless anonymity of the internet leads more quickly to "deep" conversation.

LM:   I agree about it being easier to get into deep conversation on the internet because of its anonymity. I've seen this anonymity have a effect for the worse - people often feel free to be rude. I also think that internet conversation often is deeper because people have time to reread the other person's submission and think about it before replying. However, if it were the case that people are generally capable of deep conversation, but just wary of opening up the topic, I'd think that I'd see a lot more of it, at least in situations where people feel safe. And I really don't see it anywhere. So...go figure.

CW:   One of the main things that I noticed when I started to actually meet people who qualified at the 99.9+ percentile was the level of concentration of interest. We could have a conversation about anything and I have never become good friends with anyone that I met via TNS*** in person - although I have had long correspondences with some people. It is, in a sense, the best evidence I have for g, the general factor in intelligence. The key, however, is not to be so attached to your opinions. From the comments about the lack of depth in social interactions its obvious that for the most part we aren't that different from superstitious tribespeople with a thin layer of savants and explorers separating our society from complete collapse.

CLF:   Why the fear?

Often, "deeper" discussions drift into controversial areas; a discussion of "violence in America", for example, easily could drift into one about gun control. At times, such drift seems accidental; at other times, it seems deliberately engineered by someone crusading for an issue. Unfortunately, when this happens, a once "civilized" debate may become an emotionally charged verbal battle.

Many topics are controversial precisely because there are merits to both/several sides of the argument; from the currently available data, we can find support for more than one stance. Where an individual stands (if he does have a strong opinion) on such issues ultimately may hinge on subjective factors, such as personal experiences, deep religious convictions, and so forth; where strong subjective factors form the bedrock for the basic assumptions upon which a belief is built, the opinion is unlikely to change (barring some revolutionary life experience or earth-shattering new scientific evidence). Unfortunately, many people don't seem to recognize that the need for open-mindedness is implied by the presence of controversy, or the contribution of subjective factors to one's beliefs. Likewise, they may view those with differing opinions as "the enemy", and may take an "attack dog", reformer stance with replies which say "You are an incorrigibly immoral, naive, disgusting moron if you believe *that*!". At this point, some people may mutter to themselves "How'd I ever get myself into this? Why'd I let myself get sucked into this kind of discussion - didn't I hear the warning signals?", and look for the door.

I've heard debates about abortion, gun control, etc....which were conducted in a "civilized" fashion - people agreeing to disagree, acknowledging the need to be tolerant of differing views; such (rare) discussions actually can become interesting "information gathering" sessions from which someone might emerge saying "Wow, I still think the same about abortion, but I really learned alot about how different religions define the soul!" Unfortunately, most discussions about such controversial topics tend to generate more heat than light - and those who dislike singeing flames and suffocating smoke may tend to avoid the hot, dark chambers where such subjects are debated.

EM:   Most people cannot engage in real talk until the participants have been located in/on the pyramid, or whatever pyramids, they inhabit. There are many pyramids: the local country club (wealth), academic credentials (the university), social standing (the Bachelors' Cotillion), strength and agility (the playing field), evil (the penitentiary), beauty (Hollywood), power (Washington DC), intelligence (the i.q. societies), and many more. One must first find out if one talks up to, over to, or down to, the proposed discussant. In normal social intercourse this usually takes about an hour of playing 20 questions.

CW:   Why the fear? Have you noticed that when there is insufficient evidence to really hold an opinion people are more inclined to fight for their opinion? So the more ignorant you are the more likely you will have opinions without sufficient evidence to hold them. Pavlov showed that when you punished a dog when it saw a circle and rewarded it when it saw a square and you gradually made the shapes look more and more similar to each other the dog would start to go crazy. When you can't differentiate between the right and wrong answer there must be a neuroprotective mechanism to avoid this sort of neurosis from occuring.

LM:   Eric, I'm glad to see that others hate baseball (and other sports) as much as I do. When I was a teenager, I was complaining once to someone that I could find no one to really talk to. This person (someone of authority) suggested that I join a softball team. I've had nightmares about it ever since. Somewhat later, Gary Larson came up with cartoons and cards showing farm animals standing upright, discussing intellectual topics, only to be clucking and mooing in the next frame when humans appear. I've always had the dream that somewhere...around the next corner...people are having intellectual discussions!!

* Colloquy effectively began 6 Jan 98 as a discussion group for online members of Collegium. The latter disbanded in early April '98, but is apparently being reconstituted as a Poetic Genius group ... hopefully a reflection of poetic justice.

** The 9 Apr 92 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an extensive article on the ultra-high-IQ societies, largely deriding the intergroup squabbling and the foibles of the more colorful personalities.

***Triple Nine Society, one of our sister societies link-listed on the main page

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