My daughters loathe The Lord of the Flies. I understand their distaste. It is a book about man’s descent into chaos, contains no female characters (unless you count the pig, which I think we’d all rather not) and just kind of . . . ends. My daughters both argue the boys don’t learn anything during their time there, the violence is horrifying, and all the characters are awful.
I sighed. “Girls, we are going to have to employ something I used to teach my first-year-writing students back in the day. We need to learn about ‘The Doubting Game’ and ‘The Believing Game.'” When I first took freshman composition in 1989 at New York University, I read a book by Peter Elbow called Writing Without Teachers. In it, he outlines the rules of these games.
“The Doubting Game” is what we would call critical thinking–closely examining a piece of writing or, nowadays, a visual text like a tv show, film, or news report in order to find its flaws. My daughters, as well as the rest of us, have become very good at the Doubting Game. Whether it’s students describing why they hate a book or some of my neighbors and friends doubting the safety of a coronavirus vaccine or the efficacy of mask wearing, it’s really easy to doubt the value or truth of anything from climate change to pandemic causes to international relations.
This is because we don’t play enough of “The Believing Game.” With school-assigned literature, explaining this is easy: believe there is a reason, or multiple reasons, why people over the years have valued this work of literature enough so that not only have we been assigned to read it, but so have our fathers and mothers and perhaps–in the case of writers like Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway–our grandmothers and grandfathers. Think about all the reasons to believe in the value of this work. What about it has caused it to withstand the test of time? What about it has drawn teachers and writers and philosophers to this work to make it part of the literary canon? What can we find that is of value in this work?
When it comes to people who hold different ideas than we do, however, the Believing Game is harder. If someone is dead-set against a new vaccine, it means asking them to find pro-vaccine articles and try to believe what they are saying. It also means those who are pro-vaccine should try to find anti-vaccine articles and try to believe what they are saying. Same with masks. And climate change. And economics. And international relations.
Now, at the end of the exercise, we don’t actually have to end up believing the opposing viewpoint. We just have to imagine what it would be like to believe, or find something in the argument to believe, or try to think about why someone would believe these ideas.
Playing the Doubting Game and the Believing Game means finding ideas we naturally believe and trying to doubt them not so we change our minds, but to open our minds. It also means finding ideas we naturally doubt and trying to believe them not to change our minds, but to open our minds.
And what does opening our minds get us? The ability to talk to those people who really believe differently than we do.
I hear the objections now:
Anti-vaccine friend: So you are asking me to find articles by the scientific community, read them, and try to believe what they are saying?
Yes. I am.
Pro-vaccine friend: So you are asking me to find articles by vaccine skeptics, and try to believe what they are saying?
Yes I am.
If we doubt the idea, I’m asking we find ways to believe it. If we believe the idea, I’m asking we find ways to doubt it.
Why? Because that is one of the only ways we are going to understand people who believe differently than we do. And only by understanding those folks are we going to be able to have a conversation with them. Because contrary to popular belief, the people who disagree with us, by and large, are not stupid. They are not evil. They are not inhuman. They probably live very differently than we do, may read and hear from vastly different sources than we do, but they are people with beliefs and values and ideas that, in the end, might not be all that different than our own.
This isn’t going to work with every single issue we face in today’s unfortunate political climate. I am not asking anyone to play these games with issues that offend, threaten, or hurt them. For instance, I’m not asking anyone to play the Believing Game with arguments for dehumanization. I will not entertain arguments advocating mass murder, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking . . . . I draw the line at any argument that posits any human being is less-than for any reason.
I also don’t expect these strategies will cause anyone to do a complete about-face in what they think or believe. It could happen, and in some instances I’d be happy if it did, but I think a lot of us are pretty well set in our ways, and we have deep-seated reasons for our beliefs that are not going to be shaken by engaging in a thought experiment. I don’t anticipate playing the believing game will turn any pro-vaccine folks into vaccine skeptics, and I don’t expect it will turn any vaccine skeptics into vaccine champions.
But there’s got to be something in our intellectual wheelhouse we can play this game with. For instance: next time we’re watching the news, and we jump to criticize a lawmaker we can’t stand because he or she is getting a vaccine, let’s recognize that we’re playing the Doubting Game. And let’s then step back and try to play the Believing Game. Why would a lawmaker get that vaccine ahead of those most at risk? What reason would be believable? Maybe it’s to inspire public confidence? Is that an idea that we could see being a possible justification for that behavior? If no, fine. At least we tried. If yes, then we have allowed our minds to open past our immediate trigger reaction.
And that’s what I think we most need. Not to change our minds, but to open them. Whether it’s with masks, vaccines, political issues, social issues, books we’re reading–whatever we have a strong opinion on–I think it behooves us to acknowledge that we have a gut reaction, an automatic move toward dismissal and condemnation or toward an almost religious belief in something certain people we follow are saying. Let’s take some of our free time to play at doubting what we are naturally inclined to believe, and believe what we are naturally inclined to doubt. I guarantee that if nothing else, it will help us better argue for what we believe, and against what we doubt, with more reason and passion. And maybe, just maybe, it will give us more compassion for those who believe differently than we do–even if they believe The Lord of the Flies is still essential 9th grade reading in an all-girls school.