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13 Dec

Only once we understand the other side of any issue can we be confident that we fully understand our own.

Do you remember the last time you found yourself in an argument with a six-year-old? Can you remember finding yourself in an argument with an adult who reasons like a six-year-old? It may have sounded something like this:

“That makes no sense!”

“It does so!”

“Oh, this isn’t even an argument.”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it isn’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

“No, it isn’t!”

“Yes, it is! It isn’t just saying, ‘No, it isn’t.’”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it isn’t! An argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”

“It is not!”

If you aren’t old enough to remember Monty Python’s classic sketch The Argument Clinic (oh, and even if you are!), pause here to go look it up on YouTube. You’ll be rewarded with four minutes of satirical fun that might make you squirm a bit because it strikes too close to home.

Indeed, if you tune into any cable news network, you’ll have a better than even chance of finding similar exchanges that aren’t nearly as funny and are much less clever.

Not so very long ago, political debate involved applying reason and context to facts in pursuit of truthful understanding. Today, the preferred method involves cherry-picking facts (or making them up entirely), then wielding them dismissively or sarcastically to disparage opponents. Of course, that’s easier than constructing a coherent refutation of an opposing position. But it does little to advance understanding or promote clarity of thought.

The rapidly vanishing art of syllogistic elegance gives voice to the latest addition to the Ethical Lexicon:

Quodlibet (quod·li·bet/ kwod-luh-bet) noun

A subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, often on a philosophical or theological subject.

A whimsical combination of familiar musical compositions consisting of two or more independent and harmonically complementary melodies.

Very few issues worthy of debate are black and white. That’s why we need to grapple with the gray areas of life, of which there are many. It’s always tempting to reduce issues to binary choices between right and wrong, good and evil, beneficial and destructive. But it’s ultimately self-defeating; binary thinking discourages complex reasoning while encouraging superficiality and misrepresentation.


The second definition of quodlibet is particularly instructive. Music is built on harmony, the fusion of complementary components into a seamless whole. Going a step further by integrating two or more wholly independent themes adds an element of the unexpected. The resulting humorous reaction arises from such unanticipated juxtaposition.

Perhaps this is why modern society’s predisposition toward simplifying every debate to “either/or” coincides with our collective loss of humour.  Comedians typically find humour by challenging boundaries and colouring outside the lines of propriety. Sometimes, they go too far. But more and more comedians lament that today, even mild flirtations at the edges of incongruity bring condemnation and cries for censorship. Consensus is growing that our diminished capacity for nuance and context is destroying our sense of humour.

It’s bad enough when oversimplification defines the world of politics. Even worse is the way political perspectives have insinuated themselves into our personal and professional lives.

The way we look at the world has much to do with our inborn personality traits. Those who rate high in openness are more likely to develop liberal outlooks, while those high in conscientiousness tend to be more politically conservative. Applied to business, it’s likely that the first group will favour novelty, experimentation, and risk-taking, where the latter group will prefer a safer, time-tested, and traditional course of action.


Rational thinking often requires holding two competing or contradictory ideas in our heads at one time. Stealing is wrong, except perhaps to save a life. Lying is wrong, but maybe not when the truth will cause undue damage. Gossip is wrong, except when sharing information provides essential warning to prevent harm.

This is why successful lawyers and legislators compose briefs or papers anticipating opposition arguments. It’s also why business executives are well-advised to charge a devil’s advocate with the duty of shooting holes in proposed investments and ventures. Only once we understand the other side of any issue can we be confident that we fully understand our own.

Recognizing how our natural proclivities produce unconscious biases will not change the way we see the world. But it can help us compensate for our own tunnel vision. Once we admit how prone we are to irrationality and defensiveness, we become more willing to consider perspectives that strike us as counterintuitive and give objections a fair hearing.

The simple process of respectfully listening and rearticulating unfamiliar ideas helps us better understand our own positions so we can better assess how sound they are. It may also lighten the mood by drawing attention to the ironic tension of two competing proposals, each of which has logic and merit to back it up.

When we use argument as a weapon, every disagreement becomes a holy war, one in which there is no compromise, no meeting of minds, no other side of the issue. There is certainly no room left for humour, which is the lubricant that makes all social interaction run more smoothly.

The best practice for reclaiming nuance and context is to lead with humility, which is H in the acronym, ETHICS.  Is it really so daunting to concede that we may not have the market cornered on truth, that we may lack critical information, that opposing opinions may have merit?  

By employing quodlibet to formulate ideas with intellectual integrity, we will inevitably benefit from the diversity of thought that is arguably the most precious resource for advancing the success of any community.