Playing the Believing Game

I find myself somewhat amused to realize that my biggest learning experience of 2019 has its roots in Dr. Von’s Intro to Ethics course—before we even cracked open the textbook. Rather, it was the first homework assignment, a relatively short reading titled “The Believing Game—Methodological Believing” by Peter Elbow.

I find myself somewhat amused to realize that my biggest learning experience of 2019 has its roots in Dr. Von’s Intro to Ethics course—before we even cracked open the textbook. Rather, it was the first homework assignment, a relatively short reading titled “The Believing Game—Methodological Believing” by Peter Elbow. Now, it’s one thing to complete a grade-wide reading for a class, but to see it so enthusiastically endorsed by a teacher you respect and fear in equal measure is enough to pique your curiosity. And so, armed with a blue highlighter, I set to work.

I’m sure academics at Lawrenceville have brought many of us into contact with the concept of “the believing game,” if not Elbow’s paper itself. It asserts that in evaluating arguments, listeners default to what Elbow calls “the doubting game.” The form of thinking most prized in our culture, the doubting game is the practice of being as skeptical and analytical toward new ideas as possible. In doubting ideas, we can find holes and faulty arguments, which makes it a valuable tool. However, when we consistently use the doubting game, we might shoot down good ideas that are simply being argued poorly or within a moral framework we personally do not subscribe to. Thus, we should also consider playing the believing game, wherein we simply listen to others’ ideas and actively try to understand and see why they may be believable. In doing this, we challenge our own biases by trying to consider things from other points of view.

While this concept initially seemed at odds with the personal philosophy of a teacher who actively encourages a good fight at the Harkness table, I soon realized its applicability when we began moving through course material that featured vastly different ideologies, most of which would be considered outlandish by today’s standards. We were encouraged to try and see the merit in each philosophy, from Hobbes to Nussbaum, and I personally came out of the class with both an ongoing existential crisis and the “Believing Game” filed into the back of my brain.

I next encountered the concept a few weeks later, when I stumbled upon Cassie Jaye’s 2017 TED Talk. A lifelong feminist and filmmaker, Jaye originally took up a project to document the Men’s Rights Movement with the intention of exposing an anti-women agenda. Initially, Jaye describes her confirmation bias getting the best of her perception, as she would continually take statements in favor of men’s rights as threats to women’s rights. One example she provides reads: “One would say to me, ‘Men are far more likely to lose their child in a custody battle.’ And I would counter: ‘It’s because women are unfairly expected to be the caretaker. It’s discrimination against women that they get custody more often!’ Yes. I’m not proud of that.” However, in her role as a documentarian, Jaye was forced to listen to the people she was interviewing in order to represent their argument. After some reflection, she learned that while she didn’t agree with all that they said, she could see the legitimacy in assertions that there are issues that disproportionately affect men and recognized that many mens’ rights activists simply want to add to the gender discussion, not override women’s voice. Jaye was able to confront her biases by trying to see the world through different eyes and entreats her audience to do the same by listening to with the intention to understand rather than contradict, a practice that falls nicely in line with Elbow’s theory.

This struck a chord with me, and by the time I found Daryl Davis’ story, I was consciously trying to apply “listening to understand” to every controversial opinion I encountered. What I didn’t realize is that it can not only be an excellent way to challenge your own biases, but invite others to challenge theirs. In 1983, Davis, a black jazz musician, sought out Roger Kelly, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) leader of Maryland and approached him with a genuine question: “How can you hate me if you don’t know me?” Davis asked the man about his opinions, attempting to understand. This isn’t the believing game, exactly. Davis rightly did not bend his views, but he did create an environment in which Kelly felt humanized and heard. They established a rapport to the point where the Imperial Wizard of the KKK was regularly coming to this black man’s house, meeting his friends, and dining with him. And ultimately, Davis says, “because I was willing to listen to him, he was willing to listen to me.” Davis later managed to talk dozens of Klan members, including the Imperial Wizard, into leaving the hate group. Individuals from marginalized groups often adopt an attitude of “it’s not my job to educate you” and view extremists with—completely justifiable—hatred, but Davis had a level of compassion and courage to meet his enemies and change their minds by opening dialogue.

Now, while I hardly expect to be Daryl Davis, I find that I can push myself to be better at listening and do what I can to create spaces that encourage it. In this day and age of hyperpartisanship, we all should do our best to receive different ideas or at least understand where they’re coming from and avoid dehumanizing the source. As we see in Davis’s case, this doesn’t necessarily mean compromise, but it almost always means positive change. I think the whole thing sounds simple; it’s among the basic principles of Harkness, after all, that there’s value in listening, but we’re all prone to getting overly attached to our existing beliefs and making villains out of those who threaten them. This year, I learned that the first step should be admitting that tendency, encouraging others to do the same, and making a concerted effort to listen to understand.