The Lost Art of Debate

This recent election cycle has been nothing if not revelatory. Who would have guessed that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were the harbingers of a populist revolt that would leave both major parties in the throes of identity crisis?

But enough punditry; those are considerations for the political class. While they meet behind closed doors in Washington, We the People should revisit the ancient and sacred art of civil debate and contemplate why so many of us abandoned it.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t fought for what they believe in. Indeed, part of the problem is that many of us confuse fighting with debate. Debate requires patience, empathy, clarity, and above all, an open mind. Fighting requires very little beyond the hubris to mistake conviction for virtue (for examples, visit Facebook, YouTube, or twitter).

To debate someone you have to respect them enough to let them finish a sentence. You have to be willing to let them construct an argument against you under the assumption that you will later be able to successfully challenge its premise. You must also open yourself to the idea that there are realistic limits to your own knowledge and perception.

The bravest thing you can do is give someone time to speak against you. Conversely, resorting to ad hominem, laying waste to innumerable straw men, and shutting out dissent are the strategies of cowards: the easy way out.

Too often these days we lack the bravery to face our ideological opponents. We go online and read news sources that confirm our opinions; we shame our detractors into silence; we withdraw to be with our own kind. Consider that this year over 1,700 counties voted with margins 20 points different than the national vote while only around 250 voted within 5 points of the national vote. At the Washington Post, Phillip Bump writes that two thirds of Clinton and Trump supporters had few to no friends supporting the other candidate. The lukewarm comfort of our echo chambers keeps us content to ignore that ours is a big world.

Nowhere has this tendency become as evident as on college campuses, which have sadly become ideologically homogeneous to the point of enfeeblement. Recently, colleges have developed a disturbing trend of turning away controversial speakers at the request of students. Between 2015 and 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education counts 52 attempts to disinvite speakers based on student opposition, of which 24 were successful.

Following the election of Donald Trump, there was a widespread and embarrassing exhibition of incredulity. The dangers and consequences of the echo chamber were made apparent.

Rather than take this as an opportunity for introspection, some have chosen to double down. More than a few colleges granted accommodations to their students, ranging from postponing exams to providing “breathing spaces”—rooms containing pets and coloring books—to students who felt stressed by the results. Many smart people took to social media to excoriate others they’d never met, or tried to understand. Is it any wonder that those who have shied from ideological opposition wither in its face?

A closed mind cannot aspire to persuasion. A theory is not made stronger without facing resistance. If you want people to listen to you, as presumably we all do, you should be willing to hear them out. That means reading news from sources that make you uncomfortable and trying to engage people who aren’t like you without writing them off as bigots. It means reaffirming the value of unpopular speech, denouncing censorship, and moving past identity politics. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

For the good of our society, it’s time to revive the art of debate and put aside the intellectual lethargy that precludes it.

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