|New York Times|
I've spent the last six years arguing. I know I hold no professional title or public prestige in this self-appointed occupation, but it is nonetheless true. It began with religion, after I became an atheist in High School, and has since morphed into intense conversations about politics, economics, climate, education, philosophy, culture, history, and even literature. Some of these conversations were deeply enjoyable. Others, not so much. But all the while through, I persevered in having these conversations (and educating myself about the subjects), not specifically because they were enjoyable, but because they were so intensely important. And they weren't important for their own sake, but were important because of the way that their answers--and our ignorance of them--affect our day-to-day lives. All of the big questions are big precisely because they influence in our most basic assumptions about life, our universe, and each other. In other words, they are important because they determine the shape, structure and existence of what is ultimately the most important thing in life: our relationships.
Except for the big Catch-22: short of going on a killing spree, this pursuit is one of the most effective ways of purging your life of all social ties. It's not that no one wants to talk about these issues; it's that no one wants to be contradicted. Everyone wants to be right and, what's worse, the wise and knowledgeable are aware of how little they know; the ignorant and stupid (at least in relation to the big questions) are not... which means that they are usually the ones who are more confident in their misinformed opinions and more eager to take up causes. They're the ones most actively and self-assuredly pushing the buttons that control this monstrous contraption we're all riding along in. The desire to stop them from destroying everything, or even just a few things, is difficult to control, but the cost is the very reason these issues are worth caring about in the first place: your relationships, even with the ones driving us brilliantly towards oblivion.
But this is not a plea for pity, or a vain cry of anguish at an unfair, uncaring universe. I've learned a lot about what's really important in life from these conversations, and especially from losing friends over these conversations. A few of them were intelligent, funny, and intensely driven. From these losses, I've compiled a list of rules to follow in contemplating the big questions.
1.) Divide people into categories.
This doesn't mean they must be locked in, or to stereotype based on something superficial (like race), but seriously consider people's personalities and how much your relationship with them means to you. I have three categories: (A) people I love, and therefore don't want to have serious conversations with; (B) people I love because I can have serious conversations with; and (C) people who I don't love.
Many people will have a very difficult time admitting that the third category exists for themselves. We've been taught that we must love everyone, after all. I'm here to inform you that you are under no such obligation; some people are stupid, some people are straight-up assholes, and some people are just boring, or otherwise not fun to be around. Some of these people we love anyways. Maybe they're family, or we grew up with them. But make no mistake--you don't have to love these people. Society functions better when we all treat each other decently, sure, but holding a door open for a person at a store doesn't mean I love them. I'd just as soon ignore them, or even verbally destroy them if they said something vulgar or stupid about someone or something I do care about.
If this is still difficult to swallow, consider that some people hate other people. Or maybe they don't hate them, but are convinced of something that will hurt or kill others. Can you love both simultaneously? Not without doing violence to the meaning of love. If you love Fred, you can't simultaneously love John, whose hatred or stupidity will maim or kill Fred. If you claim to love John, you aren't acting consistently with loving Fred. And so you must choose. The fatuous claim to love everyone is a cop-out, an empty ego-boost, and an insult to those who really deserve your love.
2.) Don't debate with people you care about
This one is slightly more complex for me, because I have a number of friends that I care about in part because they make such great conversation partners. But if you aren't like me, and don't watch hundreds of hours of debates on YouTube while debating your friends' friends on Facebook for the sheer pleasure of it, this may not be a category for you. These friends of mine are unique and extraordinarily rare in their ability to emotionally detach themselves from their own position (but not from the conversation), and so our friendship is, for the most part, safe from harm.
With these exceptional individuals aside, talking about big questions with people you love is an invitation for tension, anger, frustration, miscommunication, and ultimately the destruction of that relationship.
3.) Don't stop learning
The fact that talking with the people in your day to day life about big-question topics is generally counterproductive on several levels doesn't mean that the issues are no longer important to understand.
On a related note, there will be people--journalists, statisticians, statesmen and ordinary citizens--who will still take up the flag and go on the charge. Not only do they give you the opportunity to stay informed on these most important of issues, but often do so at significant personal and financial cost, ranging from the loss of a few friends to loss of liberty or life (Edward Snowden, Salmon Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, etc). They may not lose a limb in combat, but for some of them it may feel like it. Remember that, and remember that they're the ones allowing you to inform yourself.
4.) Consider that you might be the stupid one in any given subject
It happens to the best of us. Don't be offended when someone points it out; thank them. Odds are high that you are one of the assholes pushing the world towards death, and didn't even know it, whether it's because of your religion (or lack of it?), your politics, or your atrocious sense of style.
5.) Always remind yourself what you can and cannot control
There's a degree of nihilistic angst that comes with the realization that the most important thing in life and the pursuit of its preservation can often be mutually exclusive. When some large parts of humanity are dedicated to bringing all of us to the afterlife together, while other even larger groups attempt to reshape economic laws that only work if we make some definitively false assumptions about human psychology and motivation (otherwise they destroy everything), it can sometimes feel like you jumped out of an airplane with fellow jumpers who packed all of your backpacks with prayer-books instead of parachutes. At 10,000 feet in free fall, there isn't much you can do; talking is no use, and nothing you can do solo will possibly save you. But suppose you could save yourself, while the rest of the world fell to their death--being right, metaphorically. Would a life of solitude be worthwhile?
In the meantime, you're still at 9,500 feet. You can't control your fate, but you're surrounded by other people, doomed just as you are. Ask them who they are. Tell them a funny joke. If you're feeling ambitious, write a final message to your children about the dangers of skydiving with prayer-warriors. Who knows; maybe the books will save you (probably not). Maybe you'll hit water, but in either case, you have no final say in the matter. But you do have a say in how you use that time, and maybe influencing what that time looks like for your children, just a little bit. And remember that no matter how dreary our future seems, how dense our planet cohabitants may seem, the short decades we have to experience it all is a fantastic accident more improbable than winning the lottery. That's important.
So long internet debate world, and good riddance. Fellow internet-debaters, get out as soon as you can. You're the captain of your own ship, and no one else is going to save you from the island of isolation. Sail away. Go learn a skill, drive a truck, or become a carpenter. Fall in love. Live life for yourself, don't let it lapse away for some dumb cause or other. You'll do more good, do less harm, and enjoy it all far more for it.