The Spirit of Good Will

I was reading How to Think by Alan Jacobs, and he makes this really insightful comment:

“Genuine community is open to questioning from people of good will.”

He makes a distinction between cliques and in-groups, where conforming to certain ideas are the condition for acceptance, and genuine community, where the communities are open to dialogue and being changed by “people of good will.” He says that open-mindedness is not an unqualified good.

“The life of the mind always requires triage, the sorting of the valuable from the less valuable, the usable from the unusable, and in conditions of information overload we start looking for reasons to rule things out…We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs.”

It made me think of a few online interactions I’ve had recently. One was with someone whose worldview was informed primarily by right wing conspiracy theories. He was suggesting that in order to know what was really going on, I should spend some time listening to a podcast which had Joe Arpaio as one of the commentators.

I told him I’d pass. He said that I wasn’t being open-minded, and he was right. I’m not open-minded about questions that I have resolved to my satisfaction and “are no longer up for grabs.” I’ve also heard enough of some people’s ideas to immediately discount anything they say; Joe Arpaio is a good example. Some people have a lot of bad ideas. It is better to not listen to them. The more we listen to bad ideas, the more they take up residence in our mind. Once we figure out an idea is bad, we don’t need to keep revisiting it, just wait until someone we know, someone of good will, vouches for it. Then, maybe, give it more consideration.

An example of settled questions, for me, is whether fluoride and vaccinations are good for you. The short answer, these are two of the most important public health interventions of the 20th Century. They are good. But, there are longer answers, too.

Fluoride kills mouth bacteria, which in addition to cutting rates of dental caries, dental abscess, etc., in the mouth, also cuts other diseases that can originate in the mouth, such as reducing bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis in the gums that is responsible for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Even with fluoride in water, approximately 34% of the United States population over 30 has periodontal disease. Want to take a guess what the Venn diagram of the 1 in 5 of U.S. citizens over the age of 65 without any teeth and the third of the population with periodontal disease looks like?

We know that fluoride provides protection against caries, which are the most common health problem among children, and it also helps adults. Rates of moderate or severe fluorosis is only 3.6%. It’s pretty clear that the risk/benefit analysis of adding fluoride to water is a good public health intervention. It doesn’t need further discussion.

Same goes for vaccines. Study after study has proved they are safe, and they protect from major diseases. When you look back in the past, you know what wasn’t good about the Good Ol’ Days? The flu epidemics, diptheria, tetanus, hepatitis, human papillomavirus, polio, measles, mumps, varicella, rubella, rotavirus, and smallpox. And that’s only scratching the surface. Risk/benefit? It’s obvious that vaccines are almost all benefit. There’s nothing to discuss. Go get vaccinated.

Are these studies absolutely conclusive? No. But, you have to make calls in life, and these are two calls that I am comfortable making. There’s little risk and a whole lot of benefit, which is why we do them as a matter of public policy.

Of course, there are people that are absolutely convinced that vaccines and fluoride are responsible for some terrible harm. I am open-minded to these ideas, only in so far as to understand how it might make me feel to believe them. But, it’s not going to be a belief I share.

There are others that I consider settled. The Earth isn’t flat, and people have walked on the moon. The Holocaust is a historical fact. Very few people have RFID in their bodies, and it is not the Mark of the Beast. And so forth.

Others I’m willing to suspend judgment on. I’m open to the idea that the government has covered up contacts with alien civilizations. From a probability standpoint, I think it is low probability, <1%. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it was true, and I would be surprised if there were any. Elvis is very probably dead.

It goes the other direction as well. I’m willing to acknowledge the point that planetary models of climate change might be inaccurate, and the story of climate change is wrong. Again, it is low probability on the level of alien contact, <1%, but not impossible.

The question is: where does good will lie? Am I being a person of good will if I am willing to empathize with how someone feels about believing something to be true, even if I believe it is false? Am I a person of good will if I am willing to entertain the possibility that one of my deeply held beliefs might be wrong? Or, is being a person of good will mean taking seriously an argument you do not believe in and responding with a counter-argument, such as the fluoride argument above?

I think being a person of good will comes down to two things:

  • loving people more than our ideas
  • valuing learning over debating and winning

When there is no love and no respect, there can be no dialogue. When someone only wants to share their point of view (and get you to adopt it) and they aren’t listening, then there is no dialogue. If the person you are talking with listened to an idea, but immediately discounted it because it is inconsistent with their worldview or established settled beliefs, then there can be no dialogue.

We can not, and should not, always be people of good will. We have limited time on this earth and much of the dialogue we might have is of no value to anyone. But, there are also people in our lives that are in desperate need of love, respect, and recognition. Perhaps the value in dialogue isn’t in the exchange of ideas, but in giving people in our lives a good listening to. What would we hear if we truly listened and didn’t get hung up on what was being said?  Or, is that possible? Are heart and mind intertwined such that there can be no feeling without thought or vice versa?

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