Intellegere Foundation

Progress Succeeds Understanding

Discourse, Ideas, People and Labels

Discourse, Ideas, People and Labels

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.

The above adage is the reformulation of a quote from Henry Thomas Buckle. [1] It is interesting that the advice seems to run counter to itself. By dividing the “minds” into categories of discussion the adage is itself discussing people. Simply, “minds” are people. Consider a more explicit rephrasing, “Great minded people discuss ideas, average minded people discuss events, and small minded people discuss people.” It would simply be a funny little anecdote to recognize the contradiction if not for the fact that the adage is so often repeated. Nevertheless, I believe there is still something to be gained from the core idea but only if we strip the quote of the contradiction.

Great discourse is about ideas, average discourse is about events, and small discourse is about people.

Now the advice follows itself. We are talking about the idea of discourse, not the people engaged in discourse.

The original adage places labels on people engaged in discourse based on the topic of discussion such that the “small minded” talk about people and the “great minded” talk about ideas. This is a pretty big leap to make. I image that even the “greatest minds” among us spend quite a lot of time discussing people. Does Stephen Hawking’s comment, “I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers,” in reply to a NYT reporter that asked what his IQ was, diminish his status as a “great mind?”[2] Does Bill Gate’s comment, “He’s in his Steve Jobs sales mode, but kind of the sales mode that also says, ‘I don’t need you, but I might let you be involved,'” relegate him to the “small mind?” [3] I don’t think there would be much disagreement to saying that the standing of these two are unaffected by their having talked about people. Certainly though, these comments don’t reflect the greatest discourse in which they engaged.

What we ought to take away from the adage is, “great discourse is about ideas.” Consider the person as distinct from the idea. We see this in the immigration debate, the right often referring to people having crossed the border illegally as ‘illegal aliens’ or simply ‘illegals’ while the left refers to them as ‘undocumented immigrants.’ The statements, “No human being is illegal” and “No person is illegal” have become a common sight on protest signs and t-shirts of immigration activists. [5] The criticism of the term ‘illegal’ as a label is that it de-humanizes the person. The term fails to acknowledge that the ‘thing’ being referred to is in fact a human being which warrants consideration as such.


Similarly, there has been a push to end the labeling of people as ‘criminals.’ The argument against such labels is that they serve to ‘stigmatized’ the individual and contribute to the difficulties of re-entry following incarceration. [6] [7] Dr. Kimberley Brownlee makes an important point:

In many other social areas, we have moved away from this kind of labeling. We’ve largely abandoned labels such as the autistic, the handicapped, the retarded, the disabled, the blind, the poor, and the undeserving poor. [8]

When we understand people’s actions as having been influenced by a confluence of the environment and genetics or “nature and nurture,” we recognize the person distinct from the action. Even in cases in which there is strong evidence re-offending is likely the shift is to regard the individual as a person likely to re-offend.

In debates surrounding Donald Trump, he has been labelled a “racist.”[9] [10] [11] Based on the evidence it seems apparent that many of President Trump’s policies and comments are racist. There is a clear argument to be made that the actions of Donald Trump show disparate preference of people based on race. Nevertheless, if we want to have “great discourse,” we must maintain a consistency with the distinction drawn above. We ought to be careful, applying the label of ‘racist’ to the actions and not to the person. As with the example above the shift is, Donald Trump is a person likely to express ‘racist’ ideas through policy. Labeling Trump as a ‘racist’ trivializes the discourse. It becomes a discussion about Donald Trump’s thoughts instead of the much more important discussion about the suffering as a result of his policies. There is no progress to be made in discussing another’s thoughts – of which we cannot have knowledge. It simply derails discourse by spurring animosity and further entrenching those which disagree.

We apply labels without thought, the driver that cuts us off becomes a ‘jerk,’ the woman in the short dress becomes a ‘slut,’ or the person we disagree with becomes a ‘moron.’ This is not an effective means towards understanding and serves only to hinder progress. Once we apply some label to a person the person becomes subordinate to the label – from our perspective. In doing so, two things happen. The first is that a contradiction is created with the value that human beings warrant consideration as human beings prior to all else. Inconsistently applying the value weakens or even nullifies the claim that human beings ought to be considered prior to any label. The second, is that the discourse becomes one of discussing the ‘person’ – though in actuality only a caricature of the person. We ought to be discussing ideas and moving past the person which has expressed the idea. A good idea is a good idea not because it comes from the ‘right’ person or the ‘right’ political party. If a ‘racist’, ‘criminal,’ or ‘illegal’ presents an idea which could end homelessness and reduce suffering it would be a good idea regardless of the person’s label.

It’s easy to label someone. It happens quite often without any effort at all, particularly, among those groups and people we don’t know well. If we want to achieve progress we need to do the hard thing. We need to uphold a value that all people deserve consideration as people first, even when it’s easy to regard an individual as an exception to the rule. Doing so allows us to discuss and understand the ideas; to have “great discourse,” to develop understanding, and thus presents opportunities for progress.

This article was written for Intellegere Foundation by Cory Rauch. The aim of the foundation is to advance public discourse and engagement on a number of issues in the state of Wisconsin. 

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