Lessons from the ‘Die Hard is/isn’t a Christmas Movie’ debate

I haven’t written a post for some time now, but it somehow felt important to address the key debate of this time of year: “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”. I’m specifically addressing the ongoing disagreement in this post, and what it says about people and our ability to feel and rationalise something to be true or otherwise. Die Hard’s oscillating status as a Christmas movie, depending on the status of the person evaluating it, is the most interesting thing going on here. I do not come down on one side of the debate or the other*

One of the most important, obvious and yet strikingly ignored facets of both organisational life and societal experience is that two sensible people can have access to the same information and reach two perfectly reasonable (yet conflicting) conclusions. You would hope, in a reasonable society, that each person would recognise the inherent reasonableness of the differing view, yet sadly and unhelpfully the conflicting conclusions lead us straight to conflict. The desire to be right overwhelms, all too often, any motivation to see the merit of alternate viewpoints.

In Truth (A Brief History of Bullshit) by Tom Phillips he talks about the cost of being informed being often either too high or too low. You are offered information and you take it as a common view that doesn’t need checking (as it is in widespread and overwhelming circulation) or conversely you are offered information and the cost of personally checking it is too high. So we believe most readily things that could easily be checked (but we don’t feel we need to bother) or things that are so difficult to check we can’t be bothered. A lot of arguments fall into one of these two categories – we don’t bother too much as to whether we know facts are, in fact, facts.

It could be said, therefore that our relationship with the truth is one that, often, features inadequate effort on our part. This contrasts with the incredible effort and passion that we often seen put into people defending their position and reasoning. Once our reasons and beliefs are attacked or criticised this becomes an attack on identity, rather than an exploration of how conclusions have been reached. Even for the seemingly trivial explorations of whether or not something is a ‘Christmas film’.

The other interesting thing happening here is the reaction is often prescriptivist (I see it this way therefore the world should too) rather than emotivist (I am simply expressing that I feel this way as an individual). It seems that once a year it becomes important for many people to convince other people as to whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas film. Often this will come from feeling or a few chosen data points rather than exploration or detailed reasoning. Again, the desire to express and universalise our view seems to have more effort dedicated to it than the desire to check for further data points or examine our own position. For the most part of this post you could replace the concept of ‘Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ with any contentious issue of our times. I think it is a relatively safe exemplar of the imbalance between expertise, reason and LOUD VOICES that social platforms provide.

There is of course plenty of good quality evidence about whether Die Hard is a Christmas Movie. Rather beautifully, if you look hard enough, you’ll find that someone has put the work in that you haven’t been bothered to – true of many things. This piece by Stephen Follows “Using data to determine if Die Hard is a Christmas Movie” is wonderful to see because it evaluates the elements that people tend to use to determine whether something ‘counts’ to attempt to inform people’s views. I won’t tell you the conclusion, it’s a great read and you should click.

Even with this level of evidence people will continue to disagree or place a different level of weight on different elements. Either because of confirmation bias (they are looking for evidence to support their current point of view) or motivated reasoning (their desired end state requires a different selection of the evidence) or simply because they have a different lens with which they see the world. Unpicking how we feel and how we think – if those are different things – can be hellishly difficult and, at times, largely impossible. So what can we or should we do?

  • Look for the merit in other people’s data and arguments. Then look again before dismissing it. If you dismiss it too readily then you lose
  • Use multiple sources of evidence and assess their relative credibility
  • Much better than dismissing contrary evidence is to recognise and remember it as a potential weakness in your position. Not all elements of arguments are binary
  • Remember you are seeking the most likely answer, not simply to defend your position
  • Recognise when you don’t know enough or the threshold for knowing is such that you have to defer to expertise/defer a personal conclusion.
  • Remember that it isn’t incumbent on us all to have strong views on everything. ‘I’m not sure’ is an reasonable position, not a weak one
  • Be clear on what is a logical conclusion and what is how you feel. Or at least attempt to tease them apart to look for non sequiturs/overly bold claims
  • Recognise you won’t always do these things well

And above all remember that it’s important that you recognise whether the forum you are using (and your intent within it) is to express an opinion or explore a viewpoint. It’s really helpful for others if you can do that too.

To close with a quote from one of the indisputably greatest Christmas movies –

Hans Gruber: I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask.

* I agree with Stephen Follows. It is clearly, now, a Christmas movie – even if that had been debatable in prior years. I hope I’ve still been able to take a ‘zoomed out’ view of the larger argument though.

Thanks for reading and have a great end to the year.

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