Breda O’Brien: Before you disagree, wait five minutes. And think

Committed to finding truth? Then ‘seek out the best representatives of positions you disagree with’

Alan Jacobs's witty, clever little book, How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, was a welcome Christmas present. It contains provocative insights like this: "To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly and wonderfully social."

Jacobs comments that commending someone for thinking for herself usually means that the person is “ceasing to sound like people that I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of”.

He cites an essay by Marilynne Robinson, called “Puritans and Prigs”, where she talks about “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”.

Any given attitude may not be approved of by the wider culture, but may be approved of by people we consider significant. That approval still counts as a powerful incentive even when it may lead to wider social disapproval.


It is always tempting when reading a book like Jacobs’s to see how it applies to other people. The real challenge is to see how it applies to ourselves. Jacobs suggests that the person who really wants to pursue truth will have to develop strategies to overcome the subtle pressures to belong. None of us wants to get relegated to the out-group because we have ceased to think along with our favoured in-group.

Jacobs references Scott Alexander, who in 2014 wrote a famous blog post called "I can tolerate everything except the out-group".  It is a reflection both on the necessity for and the difficulty of tolerance.

Alexander’s definition of the out-group is intriguing: proximity plus small differences. Writing in the American context, he focuses on the Blue Tribe (Democrats) versus the Red Tribe (Republicans).


The most difficult thing is not tolerating some oppressed minority or group of foreigners, but your neighbour who has a different political view. Except, as Alexander points out, in the US you are very unlikely to have a neighbour with a different political affiliation, using himself as an example. He knows almost no conservatives despite the fact that he lives in a Red State with a Republican governor.

Alexander concludes his article memorably: “Being tolerant makes me see red, makes me sweat blood, but darn it, I am going to be tolerant anyway.”

Jacobs goes even further. He believes that if you are really committed to learning to think and to finding the truth, you need to “seek out the best – the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded – representatives of the positions you disagree with”.

And if your first thought is that such people are extremely rare among your opponents, Jacobs asks whether such people are more common among those with whom you agree. If the answer is yes, then it is more likely that you have a large emotional investment in believing that, and therefore need more than ever to do the hard work of finding fair-minded opponents. If, by now, you have not begun to realise that thinking is hard work, often tedious, and may cost a great deal, I have not been fair to Jacobs’s ideas.

So why bother? Evolution appears to have designed us to spend our time using shortcuts for thinking, and Jacobs acknowledges that if we had to think everything out from first premises, nothing would get done.

Consensus is not always possible and is often not even desirable. Sometimes people hold wrong or even dangerous ideas that must be countered. But perhaps the way we do that is important. Anyone looking at our current culture would see that it is increasingly uncivil and unthinking.


Mind you, Jacobs's account of the insults exchanged between Sir Thomas More and Martin Luther in public letters makes today's social media insults look polite. More uses the word "shit" five different ways about Luther in one sentence, while Luther responded in kind.

While we tend to believe that we have moved on from the 16th century, we may be motivated by the same reasons – fury at the utter wrongness of our opponents.

One of Jacobs’s maxims is “wait five minutes”. Allow ideas to sit with you before responding. It calms the righteous fury and may make it easier to be fair. But our culture does not reward slow thinking. And often it requires more than five minutes.

Jacobs praises the work of the Long Now Foundation, which sponsors debates with a very unusual format. One person presents and the other person has to summarise what the first person said to that person's satisfaction before presenting a counter-argument. The debate continues in that format.

I am not aware of any institution in Ireland that fosters that kind of deep listening. But imagine if there were. It would not be so easy to relegate those who disagree with you to a “basket of deplorables” or “fake news” category if you had to understand their arguments so thoroughly that you could reproduce them to a standard that they accept as fair.

The process of doing so may not change your mind. But it certainly would change the tone of public debate and that could only be good both for individuals and society.

Happy New Year.