Sometimes, your world of ideas networks -- and you don't even realize it. There's a phrase that I kept coming across while I was in Malawi: pang'ono pang'ono. Slowly; little by little. So much of our development of our selves and and our ideas comes pang'ono pang'ono. Recently, what struck me was a slow cook of ideas centered around intellectual kindness.
I listened to an episode of OnBeing with Adam Gopnik. The interview was a rewarding one, especially towards the end. Within a few days of listening to episode, I then came across Maria Popova's article on his book Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. I've since added it to my now overwhelmingly long book list, but Popova's reading pointed out a key excerpt of Gopnik helpfully dissecting Darwin's rhetorical talent in the art of "sympathetic summary" on display in The Origin of Species:
A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.
This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.
Darwin's tactic of "sympathetic summary" is the admirable next step in the approach of persuasion that I advocate for in my essay Looking Across the River. First, understand the nature of a disagreement. Then, address the most powerful thrusts of any counterargument.
Just a few weeks ago, I had jotted down a journal entry about kindness, lightly edited to as follows:
I've noticed my own evolving understanding of the different dimensions of kindness. There's the outward expressions of it; for example, the small moments of external caring where you can turn the present around for someone else. Perhaps because I trade on knowledge, I've also started to see the increasing importance of intellectual kindness. By intellectual, I mean the whole spectrum of intelligence, from abstract ideas to emotional understanding. From the ideas perspective, I have to do the work to properly be aware of what an idea really is, and what it is not. More important to the interpersonal realm, I have to have emotional intellectual charity and only assign to malice to what I know to really be malice.
I've worked and I am working very hard to improve my own practice of what I'm calling intellectual kindness. I don't think it's more or less important than those more outward expressions of kindness, but I think it's an often under-explored space of every-day living. Developing honest vocabulary and capacity for kindness is a worthy pursuit and will only make life richer and more authentic.
It wasn't until I read the BrainPickings article that I became aware of this small network of my own writing, Gopnik's book, the podcast episode, and my journal entry. The more I read and listen and actually grapple with what the various mediums generously leave me with, the more I see just how many hidden connections lie beneath like the roots of a forest of trees.
Clearly, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to wrestle with ideas and what should be the etiquette for working out our disagreements. So much is at stake in the way we answer questions that arise in these contexts. I'm getting better at flexing my muscles of intellectual kindness, looking across the river in earnest and doing my best to sympathetically summarize. That's not to say that it's by any means easy. Pride and ego weakens those muscles, as the openness required to flex them exposes you to the risk of being wrong. I advance and stumble, slowly. Pang'ono pang'ono.