Sometimes people say their opinions as if it were informed knowledge gathered from a credible source. I’ll call these hidden opinions “ghost citations”. After talking with them for a moment, you get the sense the “source” of their information is hollow, all the while the person remains convinced the information is true. We’ve all done this, but there is a kind of person I meet once in a while who cannot do otherwise.
I’ve recently spent time with a person like this. It got me thinking about how to approach what they say in a constructive way. The goal of our approach, of course, is to seek truth. As a Terran, I recognize that truth is emergent of people. Therefore, I must approach a person’s needs first before beginning the truth-work. What does this require?
Perhaps we should begin with their physical needs. Place strikes me as the most foundational part of the truth-work. Your interlocutor must be in a safe place where, hopefully, they feel secure. If I am hosting then I would do much to make them feel comfortable and welcome. If I were the guest then I would follow the host’s instructions and practice respect for their home. I try to listen to what my host wants; if they want me to “take what I want” or “make yourself at home” I do my best to receive their generosity graciously without being invasive. If they ask me to sit in a particular spot or do a particular activity, I respect their need for order in their entertaining. I find these procedures are necessary for establishing a secure environment for truth-work.
A person’s emotional state does much to influence what they say. If they feel secure as an equal, guest, or host, then it is far more likely to get honest statements from them that can be integrated into the truth you two generate. Ideally, they should be able to look back on their experiences clearly, and not influenced by current discomfort. This is not to say their past experiences will be emotionally neutral, but rather that they will look at past emotional experiences neutrally, seeing them for how they truly are (there are enough people who think “rationality” involves stoicism for me to emphasize this: security in the truth-work means the person can look back on their greatest angers, sorrows, or joys and see them as such. We don’t want to make a person joyful only for them to look on past sorrows and incorrectly see them as “not so bad”, or to make a person furious for them to look on past joys and see them as illusions. The point is clarity, not stoicism.).
While there might be more to say about the specifics of how to prepare for truth-work, I believe what I have said and what could be said may be summarized by this: you must care for the person. The truth-work will be severely compromised if your interlocutor feels that you are an enemy or are trying to manipulate them. Likewise, the truth-work will be near-impossible with someone you see as an enemy or subject for manipulation. To approach someone this way might be suitable for public debate, but that involves the practice of mage-craft, not truth-work. I find it helpful to remember that truth is discovered between people, while spells are crafted between people. Both are emergent, but they take on different characteristics.
So then, what of a person who dishonestly presents their thoughts as cited information?
My best understanding of why they do this has two likely causes. The first is that they simply don’t know the difference between their own thoughts and something they absorbed. The only solution to this is education and exposing them to various conflicting opinions. In the confusion that comes from absorbing conflicting opinions, the person will be forced to recognize their own ideas in relief to others’. They will struggle to integrate contradictory opinions as their own until they realize what it means think for themselves. As far as I understand, this is the only solution for this problem.
The second likely cause is that they are insecure about their claim to truth. Many people feel that no one would listen to them if they simply spoke their mind. In my experience, women and minorities are usually taught this and many impoverished people learn this. Under this pressure, many tend towards silence. If, however, they cannot be silent, some learn to speak as if they heard their thoughts from someone else who is more credible.
If this person is asked what their source is, their deception tends to become more elaborate and vague, undercutting the point they were trying to make. In a strange way, they weave an ad hominem attack around themselves. There is a vague sense when speaking to them that they are lying or are untrustworthy, and so there is a temptation to dismiss what they’re saying. Inadvertently, by trying to sound trustworthy, they make their position sound like a lie.
In my experience, they are not necessarily lying. They can speak great truths bundled in the insecure package of a ghost citation. It might take effort to work through the haze, but I’ve found a few simple tactics which can help the conversation progress in a constructive fashion.
- Accept their statement in good faith and use it to inform the conversation
- Ask them, “what do you think about this?” in reference to their statement
- Assert that you find their information engaging; “that’s interesting, I didn’t know that”.
I’ve found that these tactics affirm their value to the conversation, which is what they wanted in the first place. The shoulders will loosen, the eyes will make contact, and tension will ease. The important principle at the root of my suggestions is to accept what they say, full stop. Allow it to be true, allow them to relax in the comfort of being taken seriously. Once that is done, you are closer to doing truth-work. Think of these steps as fostering a relationship rather than doing the truth-work itself. Many people are too eager to get right to truth-work and so they contest every statement and fight for every value. The mistake here is not fostering the proper relationship to do the truth-work well. Such an approach is closer to a debate, and that is not appropriate in a private setting. After all, if there is no one to watch, there is no point in having a debate.
In that light, there are some tactics which might feel right but are not constructive:
- Asking, “where did you hear that?”
- Saying, “whoever said that was an idiot.”
- Asking, “how does this apply to what we’re talking about?”
These approaches are perfectly acceptable when the relationship is stable and there is room for criticism or scrutiny. However, a person who is insecure about their truth claims will inevitably react defensively to these responses. Some will become nervous and elaborate, others will become loud and offensive, and many will fade into silence. Even the third example will probably cause a defensive reaction. Since your interlocutor was probably more concerned about being taken seriously rather than working through logical connections, they might not have considered the connections too deeply. They may have felt their idea was relevant without fully seeing why. In such a situation, they will feel called out even if your question was in good faith.
Ultimately, when dealing with a person who hides their opinions as a ghost citation, don’t be too eager to fact-check them. Find security in your own opinions and focus on coaxing theirs out gently. You don’t need to fight them over every statement; allow their thoughts to exist. In time, both of you will build the relationship necessary to do truth-work and it will come naturally.