Socrates, Franklin, and the Charm of Truth
This past year has been turbulent, filled with lies and a devastating pandemic. Underlying this has been political division, made worse by a total breakdown in civil, civic conversations.
The Trump impeachment trial was Democrat's pursuing legal, constitutional truth and Republicans supporting lies and bogus technicalities with yet again an acquittal to impeachment.
Where do we go from here?
We could take a lesson from one of this nation's founders and greatest communicators: Benjamin Franklin.
Before he achieved fame as a statesman, scientist, and diplomat, Franklin made his living in Philadelphia from words - as a printer, journalist, and essayist.
Franklin recalled in his autobiography, "we were very fond of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another."
However, everything changed for Franklin after he discovered the Socratic method. "I was charmed with it," Franklin wrote, "adopted it, dropped my abrupt Contradiction, and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer & Doubter."
The Socratic method is a "form of argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking, to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions, of finding hypotheses by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions." (law.uchicago.edu)
In short, the Socratic method searches for commonly held truths that shapes and scrutinizes beliefs to determine their consistency.
As a result, Franklin changed his manner of communicating "in terms of modest Diffidence" using phrases like "it is so, if I am not mistaken."
In 2021, using "terms of modest Diffidence" just might lead to conversations that are not only more civil, but also more productive.
So, for us today the template should be modest expression and intellectual humility.
Franklin explained that the discussions should take place "in the sincere Spirit of Enquiry after Truth, without fondness for Dispute, or Desire of Victory."
Pursuing truth over seeking victory found expression in a question: "Do you love and pursue truth for its own sake?"
Today, behavioral researchers have found that people are susceptible to exposure effect, a preference for information we have encountered multiple times and confirmation bias, an inclination toward information that reinforces our current beliefs.
Franklin wrote of the effect of "Prevailing Opinions" and observed, "That Man who is not ready to change his Mind is in the Way to come to Knowledge of Truth."
In 1751, he published an essay expressing reprehensible, racist views that were all too common in his era. By applying the Socratic method, years later he helped found schools to educate black children and found that the students were equal to white children in their ability to learn.
He changed his reprinted essay almost two decades later, changing the passage that said that most slaves were thieves "by Nature".
Near the end of his life, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and petitioned Congress to abolish slavery.
At the age of 81, at the1787 Constitutional Convention, Franklin expressed his belief in intellectual humility. As James Madison recorded his words, Franklin said, "For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise."
"It is therefore that the older I grow," he added, "the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others." Prophetic, indeed!
"On the whole, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument [constitution]."
By using Franklin's model, we could begin to lessen our current polarization: with modesty, sincere consideration of others' positions, "doubt in our own infallibility and love of truth for its own sake".
Franklin managed to rise above the discord, biases and close-mindedness that are common in any era.
So, let's embrace "Socrates, Franklin, and the Charm of Truth" as we reclaim our political discourse from a personality cult(s) who would have you believe in stolen elections, cannibalistic pedophiles, and Satan worship by those who simply want a seditionist president held to account.