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.


Shawno said...

Why do you hate America? America hater!!

Trevor said...

I think it is a perfect storm of the right side dumbing down arguments to cater to a base demographic and on the left even worse becoming so intellectual that we accept all views. Because we have been trained to be policitally correct we don't engage in arguments with other employees or friends because we don't want to be seen as myopic, racist, elitist, or the worst a potential payday for a lawsuit.

I am guilty of the later because I feel that my position at work requires that I don't engage in any serious argument because it can be construed in such a manner that I could lose my job or get sued.

I love to argue. But increasingly I find that I don't have any real information to back up my agruments because we have become a society of sound bytes with no real info.

In short we are victim of our own design. By asking for political correctness and fast easy information.

Vegas Gopher said...

With so many people working multiple jobs (or fractured jobs, like freelancers managing multiple projects), people don't have the time or energy to properly educate themselves on the issues. At the end of a long workday, most of us simply want to be entertained. And those who do seek out the issues tend to look for entertaining sources, who usually rely on political bias to jazz up the entertainment factor.

Another issue that I'm afraid is going on is that schools aren't teaching kids HOW to read the newspaper. I remember a 5th grade unit in which we broke down the newspaper every day, learned what the different sections were, learned the difference between opinion and news, etc.

If you don't understand the basics of newspapers, you're an easy target for some wingnut who says, for example, that the StarTribune is a leftist newspaper because they have a liberal-leaning editorial board (or at least they did). Thus, you automatically discount anything you read in the Strib because BillO or Rush or Jason Lewis told you that it was a leftist commie rag ... including the NEWS that's reported in the A and B sections.

Of course, with newspapers dying a brutal death before our very eyes, it's too late to trot out that lesson plan, but what about teaching critical thinking, how to distinguish between an unbiased source and one that has a clear agenda, etc.?

Annelisa said...

Can't believe you had time to write this in the middle of your NaNoWriMo!!! :-D

A Big Congratulations! on winning through and achieving your second novel!!


Ophiuchus said...

I have returned here, because you spoke a truth that really hit me the other day.
For that weekend when many people changed their profile photos on Facebook in order to raise awareness of the NSPCC, there were a few who didn't. I got into a conversation with one of these about why he didn't.
What surprised me is that he put across a good, logical and very coherent arguement for not changing his photo, which, in itself, wasn't surprising - his reasoning (while I didn't agree with it) was good. What surprised me was that he bothered to argue it out at all.
One gets so used to these quick exchanges, that almost say nothing. They are, as you say, responses and reactions, but not full-blown logical arguements or debates. I thoroughly enjoyed it :-)

Ophiuchus said...


My dad and I used to get into some very heated arguements. The rest of the family thought we were 'fighting', but there was never any ill-will or anger. It was not about getting upset the other person didn't agree. I love to disagree. I miss that (I've never, since his death over twenty years ago, found anyone who will get involved in an arguement like that, without getting upset that there is disagreement and acceptance of different points of view). The whole point of our arguements were to present and exchange views, hoping that the other would see our own point of view and alter their view in some way. It didn't have to be whole-hog change, just an adaption was a 'win'.
Last week, my younger daughter (14) came home from school, having thoroughly enjoyed a debate...I was pleased for her, but found it frustrating this was a one-off! They should teach this more in schools. It is disappointing they don't. The only true examples they have are the polititions, and how do they behave? They slag each other off and try to 'find the dirty' on each other, instead of presenting their views rationally and logically! If they can't do it, where else will we see such arguement?
My younger son is learning to hold a good arguement, though it is taking time to teach him that it's ok to differ in positions and opinions. It is much more satisfying to have a disagreement with a youngster who can argue his case (even if I 'lose' the arguement more often like this :-) )

(so ironically, I had to split the comment to be able to post it, since it was 'too large'!!This is why you can't have debate :-))