The Stonecutter’s Motto

Posted by on February 1, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments

There are plenty of ways to be wrong about something. I know from experience that being ill informed, undereducated or stubborn about viewpoints can prove to be equally as wrong from a factual standpoint, as deliberately spinning untruths or manipulating ideas for ones own benefit. But what is being right all about? In Charles P Pierce’s great treatise on the stupification of America “Idiot America”, he points out that a fact, whether an actual truth or not, is only as powerful as the amount of people who believe or follow that “fact”:

“Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it.” – Idiot America, Charles P Pierce, pp. 49

Of course Pierce is not suggesting that just because enough people believe something that this idea becomes objective fact, just that in popular culture a fact or truth-claim can only be as effective as its acceptance within that culture. Unpopular ideas are easily refuted because the culture will not absorb it into its knowledge base.

While sometimes truths are difficult to discern, with so many pseudo-facts and deliberate untruths being spun in popular culture, we know with certainty that some things are incorrect – not all facts or truths are debatable, and many are ludicrous enough that we can dismiss them without too much thought. Gravity keeps us rooted to the ground, fire is hot, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Anyone who claims otherwise is not speaking from the truths of human experience in this life.

On the flip-side of the coin, believe it or not, not all bad ideas are harmful. If one believes truly that the grain of salt thrown over their shoulder really keeps the devil at bay, then what harm can it do (unless of course your eye happens to be in the firing line of the salt). Likewise, people who quietly enjoy a life of religious beliefs, doesn’t push this on anybody, and does not use their beliefs to harm anyone, then this is perfectly acceptable. There is no point in berating a believer if that person’s beliefs are basically harmless. (The indoctrination of children into a religion runs a very fine line between harmless and harmful, but I won’t go into that here.)

That is what I, and many of my online colleagues are in the business of doing; refuting ludicrous claims from any angle, not just religion and politics, but news and popular culture also. Misinformation is so often the tool used by those who want to manipulate and control your actions and thoughts, and could be deemed as harmful, or at a minimum dishonest and potentially harmful when used to further an agenda.

Even if information is not deliberately misrepresented in order to manipulate others, for instance in a conspiracy theory such as the “Moon Landing Hoax”, they still perpetuate untruths, and should at least be addressed with historical points of known facts, or data to the contrary. One thing leading to another, as it often does, and a person can conflate the small and seemingly harmless conspiracy with full-blown government cover-ups, involving Bilderbergs, Illuminati and alien mind-control devices in our food.

The main way of addressing bad ideas, untruths and ignorance is with facts and truths, and by pointing out failures in logic or thought. But because people put a lot of stock in what they hold to be “truth” or “fact”, they then find it difficult to distance themselves from their ideas. At this point it is important to say this; a person is NOT the ideas they hold.

There is a fuzzy line between a persons self-held identity and the things they hold to be truths, but these are two separate things. A person is the holder of the ideas, and ideas can change. It is the ideas that are the enemy, because people act on bad ideas, make decisions on pseudo-science, and policy based on religious prejudice. If we attack the deliverer of a message, say that the world is flat for instance, they will pull into their shells and hold even more strongly onto the idea they already hold. Telling someone they are stupid is a sure fire way to offend them, even if it is true. Even worse, to deliberately offend someone, by attacking their family or upbringing, their socio-economic group or their race, is not only a tasteless way to address a conflict of ideas, but is often just an attempt to demean the person rather than the idea at hand.

Some would say religion is immune to criticism, but it is only a set of ideas backed up by personal belief, and is deeply instilled in a religious person’s sense of identity. Because of this, attacking religious ideas can have the same effect as attacking someone’s mother, and this is the challenge. In order to have a real rational debate with a person on religion (or politics for that matter), rather than condemning all of it with a broad-brush of dismissal, try instead to attack the individual ideas. Point out the failings in the arguments, and suggest alternatives, one idea at a time. It is far easier to convince a person that a small part of their belief is wrong than to condemn a multi-layered and deeply-held belief system. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than insulting a person with ad-hominem attacks, and far more effective.

If one person changes a single idea, then it is possible to change several ideas over time. Given the right information, and the right opportunities, many people are more reasonable than they first appear to be on the surface. Aggression and personal attacks only lead to resentment. It may often feel that with so many bad ideas out there, and so many who hold onto them so tightly, that there is no reason to even bother trying to make change in the world. I recently felt this way, when a friend of mine pointed me to this quote sometimes known as The Stonecutter’s Motto, when I was feeling that my ideas were not making any difference. While I’m not a fan of motivational quotes,

“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” – Jacob Riis, American Newspaper Reporter, 1849 – 1914

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  1. Another thoughtful post Martin. Insulting people doesn’t change minds, it makes them less likely to listen to what you’re saying. People do seem to take their religious beliefs being “attacked” as something personal. As someone who was never religious, I don’t fully understand the mechanism behind this reaction. It’s an emotional reaction and it’s difficult to discuss anything logically when you drag emotions into the equation. Most often you’re shouted down because the person has a “personal connection with god” or “god speaks to them”. It’s a difficult thing to point out fallacies when you get anger in return and “why do you hate god?”.

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  2. Very nicely put, Martin. None of us are going to change the world overnight, but each of us is contributing, in our own small way, toward making it a better place to live.

    The quote from Charles Pierce immediately reminded me of a quote from a movie.

    Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall. —Professor Indiana Jones, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” 1989

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  3. For those wanting to change minds, here’s your cheat sheet…

    – The Worldview Backfire Effect
    – The Overkill Backfire Effect
    – The Familiarity Backfire Effect

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  4. Really good, Martin. Unfortunately I gave it 1 star! Aagghhhhh. I pressed on the first star to drag up to 10 but it took it as 1! It screwed up a good average. Can you correct this?

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  5. Thank you, Martin! Insightful blog!
    We do change, develop – time, people, new ideas, surroundings, books, social networks :), and etc. We have to evolve, be progressive, adaptive and that means to change some ideas. The alternative is a stale existence similar to an orthodox religion way of life that is gradually dying out, it simply can’t survive. Not long ago I had the same feelings of personal beliefs, if they don’t imposed on anybody – they don’t hurt anybody. The problem is that people who are ignorant, non-curios, rational thinkers, and rather prefer being fed a chewed up false information, they play a significant role in building our society too. They are voters. And the results of their votes are politicians, lawmakers, educators, whose dangerous despicable actions are too obvious. `

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  6. Hi Martin, excellent to see this posted so soon after our Twitter discussion earlier today.

    I group some of this either under tactics or style, and this stuff is very dear to my heart. You and I were talking about how we both feel we make better Good Cops than Bad Cops.

    Without getting too far into it, the water under these topics runs deep. Look at how strongly people identify with what we call “beliefs”. They defend them (as you write) like they’re defending their mother… or as I’d put it, they defend them like they defend their foot or their front lawn. In fact, the mythology around defending one’s “beliefs” is woven deep into our culture… if necessary, to the death. Talk about strong attachment!

    This is one reason I prefer to set aside the word “beliefs” in favor of ideas, notions, positions, opinions, propositions, hypotheses, claims, or concepts: less freight, less mythology.

    Same with “truth”; I prefer “facts”. Or observations, observables, measurements, experiences, examples, counterexamples, phenomena, data, or information… as appropriate. (Obviously these are not direct synonyms. But sometimes we can avoid the confusion surrounding “truth” by rewording our arguments.)

    Let’s save for another day (or a link-back post), the theme that “not all bad ideas—or at least wrong ones—are harmful”.

    On that Stonecutter’s Motto: as I’ve talked about, I went from devout believer to atheist. The direct transition just took a couple days, but the groundwork for the change took months or YEARS to… let’s say I installed it in my psyche. Besides classes in Philosophy of Science, it took dozens of long conversations with a good friend who happened to be an atheist and skeptic. He turned me onto the books and ideas of Paul Kurtz, James Randi, Richard Dawkins, and others.

    Each of those chats was a stroke of the Lump Hammer.

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  7. My argumentation instructor noted that any attempt at productive discussion must take the audience spoken to into account, into the equation, and that the success, no matter the soundness, of any attempt at constructive argument depends on the willing assent of the audience, or the argument fails.

    So any effective argument must account for the reasoning and predispositions of the ones spoken to or addressed in the argument, though that doesn’t require any pandering to their beliefs’ claimed validity.

    Something else was pointed out in one of my writing class lectures: How you say something can be just as if not more important than what you say.

    Good post, Marty.

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