The Rules of Intellectual Etiquette

Excerpted from The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998). For ordering information and more sample material, see <http://www.zetetics.com/reason/index.html>.

by Wendy McElroy

"A man's own good-breeding is his best security against other people's ill manners"
Lord Chesterfield, Letters, 15 January, 1753

Everyone Has the Right to Be Uninterested

When you are trapped in an unpleasant or boring conversation, you are well within your rights to state, "I don't care to talk about this (or to you) further." Make the statement without hostility, as a matter of fact, then simply walk away.

No one has an unconditional claim on your time or on your attention. And the assumption that you should care about every issue and event in the world at all times is a ridiculous one. It leads to the intellectual equivalent of what the media has termed "compassion fatigue" -- the emotional state of being overwhelmed and short-circuited by the demand that you care about every injustice committed on the planet. Don't allow yourself to be intellectually overwhelmed by the unrealistic demand that you find everything and everyone interesting.

Everyone Has the Right Not to Understand

Most of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid uttering the sentence, "I don't understand what you are saying." Too often, people see this statement as an admission of ignorance or inadequacy on their own part rather than considering the likelihood that the other person is either not explaining things well or holds a position that makes no sense.

Even if the intellectual ball is being dropped on your side of the discussion, what of it? No one understands everything, and it is folly to pretend you do. There is a vast difference between being confused about a line of argument and being stupid. The fear of appearing stupid frequently underlies our reluctance to admit that we simply do not understand what is being said.

Do not apologize. Just ask whoever is peaking to repeat or to rephrase what has been said. Ask them to clarify what they mean. Most people are more than happy to expound at length in front of an attentive audience.

Everyone Has the Right to Be Uninformed

This point of intellectual etiquette is closely related to, but distinct from, the preceding one. Rather than feeling unable to understand what is being said -- either because the terminology is technical or the arguments are tangled -- you are confronted with an issue you know nothing about.

Again, what of it? No one can know everything. In fact, in a world exploding with information, there are certain to be vast areas of human knowledge about which you are absolutely ignorant. There will always be books you have not read and events you have not heard about. The worst thing you can do is to become embarrassed and fake knowledge you do not possess. Instead, exercise the intellectual right to say, "I am not familiar with that. Why don't you explain it to me?"

Everyone Has the Right to Make a Mistake

This is far more than a right. It is an inevitability. You will commit errors, and frequently. If this upsets you, then curse human nature. As a human being, you are a fallible creature without the godlike automatic knowledge of what is true and false, right and wrong. Yet many people will argue themselves (and everyone else) into the ground or into absurd intellectual corners rather than admit to the other person, "You're right. I'm obviously mistaken about that one point."

There is no shame in admitting "I made a mistake." Indeed, there is great strength in being willing to acknowledge your errors and to learn from them. This one trait alone, if developed as a habit will give you an amazing advantage over most of the people you deal with intellectually.

Everyone Has the Right to Change Her Mind

Changing your mind or your stated position on an issue is not a sign of intellectual indecision or weakness. Changing your mind is part of the learning process by which you discover errors and correct them. Yet, like the person who will be reduced to absurdity before admitting a mistake, many of us will never admit to adopting a new position. The more publicly the former position has been stated, the more psychological resistance there is to retracting it.

Yet if someone convinces you on an issue, it is no more than a mark of intellectual honesty and courtesy to say "You've persuaded me to your point of view." After all, what is the alternative? Holding onto an untenable position just because that is what you believed yesterday? This would be childish behavior, like holding your breath until you get your own way.

Everyone has the right to say without shame, "Obviously I am wrong on that point," and not to feel diminished by this act of intellectual honesty.

Everyone Has the Right to Disagree

Whenever you hear a statement or argument with which you disagree, you have the right to say so. Often we are in situations where our opinion would be unpopular if stated. Perhaps a group of male co-workers are complaining about some unpleasant characteristic that women are supposed to embody. Perhaps a family gathering has turned into a discussion of abortion, and you hold the only dissenting opinion. Your alternatives are wider than either stewing in silence or getting involved in an intellectual brawl. Simply, but firmly state, "I disagree." You don't need to justify yourself. You needn't become either hostile or apologetic. Simply state "I disagree" and walk away. Or stay and argue. The option is yours.

At this point, many people will ask themselves "Why bother? Why cause trouble?" In some cases -- such as the family gathering -- you may reasonably decide that speaking out is not worth the price you might pay for doing so. But showing discretion is different than allowing silence in the face of offensive opinions to become a habit. Such silence is destructive to the most important aspect of your intellectual life: your own self-esteem.

Breaking the silence and saying "I disagree" is important. If it were not, most people would not feel such resistance to making this statement.

Everyone Has a Right to Her Own Opinion

Everyone has the right to so weighty a thing as an opinion, and to express it. You do not need a diploma, permission from your spouse, a dispensation from the church: simply by being a human being, you have a right to reach your own conclusions and publicly state them.

It is true: the more you know about a situation, through reading or direct experience, the more likely your opinions are to be correct. But this does not mean that you should not reach a conclusion right now based on what you know about the situation. In fact, that is all anyone ever does: form opinions based on their current level of knowledge. After all, as noted above, you also have the right to change your mind if more or better information arises.