Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pointless Debate

A lot of recent events in the news, most of them political, have me thinking about the virtue of debate. Debates begin with the assumption that there are at least two opposing sides to an issue (with a variety of viewpoints in between), and the idea is to look at the facts supporting the opposing sides. Putting formal debate-team work aside, the intended goal of a debate is to reach some kind of conclusion about the most fair and correct response to the issue in question.

The news is full of discussions about health care, the war in the Middle East, Obama’s Nobel Prize, gay rights, and the economy. All of these are potential subjects for a healthy debate. However, I would submit that a healthy debate (i.e., one that actually accomplishes the goal of reaching a conclusion regarding fair action) would require the following prerequisites:

• The parties involved in the debate would to some degree have a tolerant and open mind.
• The parties involved would have to be “reasonable”—i.e., the debate must center around facts and logic. While one may feel emotional about a topic, that should be secondary to determining a solution.
• The parties involved in the debate will have done some authoritative research on the facts surrounding their viewpoint on the issue.
• The parties must accept that “winning” the debate on either side may never happen; frequently it’s the case that a debated issue has valid points on both sides, and a compromise may need to be reached. This would call for some humility.

In most “debates” on contemporary events, none of this happens, or not enough of it. Debate on an important issue more closely resembles WWE wrestling match than reasoned arguing between reasonable people. Quotes are taken out of context and facts are skewed just so one side or the other can claim a victory. There are no ground rules; it’s a dirty fight, and sometimes actual force is used against opponents.

It leaves me with two questions: What happened to our country that it no longer can function like it has some level of sanity?, and If this is the future of debate, is there any value in it anymore? As I’ve discussed previously, journalism is mostly dead. There is an article in Atlantic magazine by Mark Bowden that looks at “journalism in action” with regard to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. It’s a good example of how sound bites and quotes heard third-hand spread false information—and how those spreading it don’t care, as long as they gain a point “for their side”.

At a time in history when many barriers to communication between groups has disappeared, it becomes important for people with different backgrounds and viewpoints to live together peacefully. There is no need to take on every person with a differing viewpoint—it can be draining, disrespectful, and arrogant. Before I owned a house and a washing machine, I had to go to the laundromat regularly. There was always a Jehovah’s Witness lady there who kept trying to start debates with me about my beliefs. Of course, it wasn’t real honest debate—it never is with those convinced of the absolute rightness of their viewpoints. In the end, I told her to go f**k herself and leave me alone. Sound harsh for someone who is a professor of religion? Perhaps, but it is a case of the pointlessness of that kind of debate. Nothing I say or do will make this woman think beyond what she’s already decided, and there is no way I will ever believe what she believes. Not to mention the fact that when I’m trying to do my laundry, I don’t want to be bothered by strangers. Which brings up another point—our views are private and personal. We don’t necessarily want to debate them with everyone.

De Tocqueville once said that democracy requires eternal vigilance. Frankly, it seems that we have an overload of stupid lately, and those with intelligent reasoning are getting too exhausted to respond anymore. What is the point of fighting people who won’t engage in intelligent, honest debate—who aren’t even PREPARED to do so, or would rather use force that facts? The great irony of Obama’s vision of America and his inclusive politics is that the barbaric and ignorant attitudes of many Americans are now exposed. Turns out they didn’t go away when Bush left office.

So tell me—is there a value in debating these issues? Has an ugly reality eclipsed the ideal of reasoned debate? And if it has—then what are the alternatives? When the door-to-door missionaries show up, I can tell them to go away. When it comes to national issues, neither the President nor Congress can tell everyone to go away. But what do you do when civilized debate fails? “Decisive” leadership is seen as tyranny (and sometimes it is). The only other alternative seems to be backing down from hot-button issues and doing nothing, or doing something that will amount to nothing in the long run. Am I right about this? Please say no.

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