Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Being Teachable

A few years ago a colleague asked me to look over some facts and draw a conclusion. A few days later I gave my response, which was the exact opposite of what others had concluded about the same facts (and it wasn't because I was right). Where did I go wrong? I allowed my pre-understandings of the facts to guide me to the conclusion I wanted, rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves. Bad move. Leaves one feeling a bit like their pants have fallen down while on stage at an important event.

Recently I listened to an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on NPR. It's the first time I've heard a Supreme Court Justice interviewed on the radio, and I found it quite interesting to hear him discuss the way the court operates and how he makes up his mind in difficult cases.

The thing that I found most revealing about this interview was the shameless agenda of the interviewer and the way Justice Breyer responded to her. The interviewer, Terri Gross, had some pretty clear pre-understandings about what she thought the current Supreme Court was about. Her questions seemed designed to assist Mr. Breyer in slam dunking her ideas on home. Refreshingly, he did not join in the game, but responded with a patient disdain for the media characterizations of the court. 

Here are a few of her questions (All quotes pulled from the transcript of the interview.)

GROSS: …I think a lot of Americans, a lot of court watchers, court reporters, see this court as a court with a bloc of activist conservative judges who are very strongly conservative and are very consciously trying to move the court and the country in a more conservative direction. And I'm wondering, from your seat on the bench, if you would agree with that perception?
GROSS: If we interpreted the Constitution only literally in the way that the framers had in mind, would we still have slavery? (Implying that those who hold to a conservative interpretation of the constitution are still in favor of slavery.)
GROSS: So, the outsider perspective is that all arguments now in the court are pitched to Justice Kennedy because he's perceived as the swing vote.
(implying that the conservatives control the court?)

No hiding her agenda there.

Here is a longer exchange between them:

GROSS: How would you compare the Roberts court versus the Rehnquist court? (i.e. please confirm for us how evil things are!)

Justice BREYER: Well, from the personal point of view you said it. The Roberts court is one where so far I've found myself more in dissent. You want a characterization in terms of conservative and liberal, but that's not my job. That's your job. That's the job of the press and the public to characterize. My job is to decide the cases, write the decisions as best I can.
GROSS: I guess I was wondering if you think Chief Justice Roberts is different as a chief justice than Chief Justice Rehnquist was.

Justice BREYER: Every new appointment is different. Every new person who comes on makes it a different court. So the difference is not just the individual, it's the reactions of the others to that person. White said that some time ago and I have found truer words were never spoken.

GROSS: But do they run the court differently to the extent that the chief justice runs the court?

Justice BREYER: No. No. The chief justice [is] in charge of administration. But each of us has a vote and each of us votes on everything.

Finally, I've included his response to a question about decision making and the way our human nature plays a part. It was refreshing to see him speak candidly about a very secret process. Basically she asks how he feels later after making a decision - is he worried that he ever makes the wrong call?

Justice BREYER: I've found it interesting. I bet it's true whether you're in business, whether you're in law, whatever field of life you're in, you have a tough decision to make, really tough, and you think, my goodness, this is evenly balanced. Oh my goodness, what will I do? But I'm sorry, time is passing. You better make up your mind. And so you do and you think this side has a slight edge. Now time passes. Do you think "I might have been wrong?" No. As time passes you begin to think, I think I was probably right. More time. Yeah, I was right. More time. I sure was right. More time. How did I think the opposite? That is called the self-protective psychology of human nature. (laughter)

Her interview techniques reminded me of how important it is that I enter into a situation with a keen awareness of my pre-understandings, as well as a teachable spirit so that real dialogue and understanding can take place. This is one of the main reasons I went to seminary, because I found myself often using the biblical data and facts to build a case for my predetermined conclusion. This works great if the two align, in which case you appear rather brilliant. But when they don't, the house of cards comes tumbling down. Then if you stick to your guns, one is left with no choice but to argue for the losing position more vehemently, and before long you are snarling like a rabid dog at anyone who might think otherwise. Not a pretty site. As Breyer noted, this is the self-protective part of human nature. 
Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial 
Reminding myself of the importance of being teachable is one of the main reasons I read the book Lying about Hitler by Richard Evans (I had recently read a couple of his books on the Third Reich from his very thorough and readable 3-volume series: see 1, 2, & 3). Lying about Hitler deals with a British liable case between two authors, one who was suing another for accusing him of twisting facts about Hitler in his historic works. The accused author made assertions such as; Hitler didn't really have a role in killing Jews, nor were as many killed as once thought. Richard Evans was called as an expert witness to provide evidence supporting the standard views on Hitler. And he sure did deliver. The amount of research and document searching noted in this book was overwhelming. I was surprised that Evans went into the case with a seemingly open mind. He was ready to tackle the facts. The book is tedious for its level of detail, and of course the conclusion is pretty obvious from the beginning, but reading it served as a great reminder to be teachable and to be fair with the facts, especially when it comes to Scripture.

As Churchill said "everyone can have their own opinions, but not their own facts."

1 comment:

John and Pam Majors said...

Interesting post. Unfortunately many of us get facts to support our premises and go from there, not really wanting to have to change our opinions. Well said.