A Fictional Letter to a Semi-Imaginary Friend

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Dear ________,

Please accept my apologies for not writing sooner, though my delay was not entirely accidental. The truth is that I wanted to give you space to struggle on your own. Let me start with a confession: I don’t hold conventional rational argument in much esteem.

You see I think our beliefs and opinions are a lot like a new pair of jeans, or shoes, or what have you. You can tell only so much from a distance. It’s not until you put them on, try them out, truly feel it through, that you can tell whether they’re for you. You have to see yourself in a mirror: how do these make me look? Do I see myself as the kind of person that’d wear something like this? What will my friends think?

This is probably paraphrasing Wittgenstein, if I’m honest. For him, at rock bottom our most basic justification for a belief was This is just what we do. We are just the kind of people who believe that.

The truth is that you’re not an anti-gay, pro-life, Wilco-hating Republican because you’ve exhaustively considered all the issues. The fundamental issue is that you simply cannot imagine life as a pro-gay, pro-choice, Wilco-loving Democrat. These are jeans you’ve never modelled. Almost nothing I can say to you will force you into the dressing room.

Of course, rational argument does play a certain kind of role. But even then, it has more to do with a turn of phrase, a play on words, a striking metaphor. Something that sticks. Something you turn over on your tongue, trying out the words as if learning a new language. And in a way, you are. You are learning what it means to say, “I am a Democrat,” or “I despise this Iraq war.” How do these make you feel? Do you see yourself as the kind of person that’d believe something like this? What will your friends think?

If anything, rational argument, as traditionally construed, takes placed after you’ve made the mental jump yourself. After you played with the ideas for a while, toyed with the notion of being exactly opposite of who you presently are. After you’ve imaginatively inhabited a different form of life (here’s Ludwig again), then you’ll be open and receptive to an alternative opinion — what is really an alternative way of being. Suffice to say that very few people consciously occupy this no man’s land, that brief period after you’ve dropped the old jeans but before buying the new. But I’m convinced that this period is absolutely necessary to change your mind about anything of even vague significance.

In the meantime, what is the point of arguing over ambivalent Greek words in Romans when you’re fundamentally incapable of ever seeing yourself as someone who’d approve of homosexuality? Why bicker over the nuances of neo-conservative foreign policy when you’re simply incapable of ever seeing yourself as the kind of person who might say, in all seriousness, “Bush’s unjust war is pre-emptive ignorance par excellence?”

I hope you don’t see this as a cop-out. It is, to my mind, just the opposite: it’s the most intellectually honest position there is. It’s freeing. It’s allowed me to stop seeing every statement of opinion as an open invitation to debate. You will have to come to your own conclusions. You will have to come to your own way of being human in a world often devoid of sincere humanity.



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