Monday, June 29, 2009

Fear of argument

It goes without saying that we're in a serious mess these days. But I've come to believe that a primary reason for that mess is because, as a society, we've developed a serious fear of argument.

Now I'm not talking about the garden-variety, everyday kind of argument about sports-franchise superiority shouted over beers in a local bar, or the disagreements surrounding the merits and foibles of recently deceased celebrities, or the all-too-common arguments that involve raised voices and money-fueled domestic squabbles. Those seem all too popular these days. If you need proof, observe how the death of Michael Jackson has evicted the seemingly life-critical issue of the Gosselin's marital troubles from the front pages, and how North Korea's nuclear capabilities are discussed far less often than whether or not Kate spanked her child or whether 'Thriller' will be a lasting classic.

Instead, I'm talking about the kind of argument where one person states a position, another who disagrees brings reason or evidence to bear in an attack against that position, and the original person defends their position through reason or evidence. Or, in a phrase: 'reasoned debate.'

The lack of reasoned debate in our society is especially curious in light of how much information is available these days. After all, we've built any number of technology-based communications systems that have made that exchange of information easier. Print. Radio. Television. The Internet. All of which allow an individual or a small group to address a worldwide audience directly and almost without effort.

With those technologies, we can photograph the injustices in our own communities and send them worldwide with a couple of clicks. We can watch horrors of oppression unfold in places where we can't even say the names. We can watch video of a young woman martyred for freedom in a country we've been taught to hate, all in living color and full stereo sound. And whether we agree or disagree with what's portrayed there, we can -- perhaps -- be motivated to act.

Given those abilities -- all of which were nonexistent even a decade ago -- these incredible communications tools should be facilitating reasoned debate, not stifling it. And yet, it seems reasoned debate has disappeared from our society.

One factor is the common and basic distrust of the information we absorb. Yes, photos can be doctored. Words can lie. Video can be faked. And results can be presented through the filter of bias. But that constant barrage of information we receive does contain sections of truth, and distinguishing that truth from fakery requires the ability to think critically. Unfortunately, most American's familiarity with critical thinking comes not from education or experience, but rather from watching Velma analyze the clues on Scooby-Doo.

Because finding truth within the modern firehose of information flow can be challenging, we are rarely treated to seeing evidence or hearing reason in our many media. For most, evidence or reason is simply too boring, or too difficult to present in a way that keeps the audience excited.

Instead, we're subjected to a coven of pundits speaking in vague mean-anything rubrics like 'liberals' or 'radical homosexual agenda' or 'right-thinking people,' all filling hour after hour on cable with diatribes and reactions. Instead of confronting evidence with evidence or countering reason with reason, we descend into insults, demonizing those with whom we disagree, choosing instead easy name calling and statements beginning with 'screw 'em.' And instead of moving our society toward the preponderance of evidence or reason, we follow the glib tongues of the most desultory, or the most sensationalized, or the most fear-inspiring, or the most entertaining.

Even in an environment like that, it would also seem that on any issue the vast majority remain silent, regardless of which side of that issue they're on. Does that majority lack the ability to defend a position? Do the individuals in that majority fear being the recipient of the insults and barbs that comprise argument in our society? Is that majority simply too entertained by the flying insults to pull the argument back to cogency? Or, given that most people don't have the backbone to tell that loud person behind them in the movie theater to 'keep it down,' is it simply that majority's lack of basic courage?

It's clear: Defending a position is always more difficult than firing off insults or pressing 'Send' on the latest flame. Finding evidence requires work. Reason requires thinking critically. And having a point hit home requires an audience to be interested.

No wonder we're in such a mess.