While visiting my brother I found myself flipping through channels in the ninth circle of Hell (otherwise known as cable news). Two guests were debating about the latest public policy or gossip column. Pundit A let me know that Pundit B hates the truth. Pundit B told me about the secret “WAR on _____” (You haven’t heard of that war yet? Because you’re probably fighting it.) The host “moderates” the discussion by provoking one or both guests, stating something that’s phrased as a question, but I’m not too sure is an actually query (e.g. “How could a decent human being possibly support what you believe?”). Everyone’s screaming, so I turned back to Adventure Time.
Do you think I’m being sarcastic? (Okay, maybe just a little.) But I know that as sure as God made little green apples, some of you’ve experienced this same disbelief in the state of public debate. Even if, like me, you really aren’t a much of a TV viewer, just go on your Facebook and check out any thread with over 30 comments. Yeah, you get it now.
What’s most painful for me is when I find myself ironically cussing at the tube. Or, writing a 2,000 word essay telling someone on the Internet that they are wrong. As much as I hate it, I am very much the problem that I want to solve.
It seems like peaceful, dissenting discourse proves itself more challenging by the day. A recent story in The Atlantic magazine about Frank Luntz, a veteran political consultant, illuminates the increasing divide between Americans, as well as the nature of the conversation. Luntz says Americans “want to impose their opinions, rather than express them,” and asks if political conversation had always been controversial. Maybe so, but not like this… not like this.
Diving headfirst into an endless vortex of insults and insinuations is incredibly tempting in the heat of the moment. I too have felt the tug and have regrettably given in many times to coarse tweets and ad hominem attacks. Maybe considering the “why” behind our inability to argue well will help us move forward. Here’s the three main reasons as I see them.
First: we fail to ask real questions. Remember what I said about those dastardly displays of rhetoric? You know, the ones that duct tape a question mark to an assertion? Well, those aren’t questions — they’re manipulative declarations of your own point of view. Inquiry goes out the window in favor of a verbal “status update.” Questions are a fantastic way of bringing clarity to someone’s reasoning and basis for their opinions. They allow our dissenters to dig deeper into their beliefs (far more than they may have otherwise) clarifying ideas worthy of being contested. Most importantly, the listener has the ability to gain actual insight to life on the other side of the argument.
Second: we do not seek to understand. Tied closely to my last point, we’d rather take the absolute worst case description of our opponent’s views and beat those views to a lifeless pulp. It’s really easy (and it’s definitely provocative) but it gives no respect toward someone’s right to defend their actual position, not the one we conveniently conjure. Neglecting to represent what someone actually believes reduces real people with stories and viewpoints to silly caricatures and talking points.
Third: we do not like being wrong. I know, I know. The purpose of a debate is to argue for one’s position. But, be real for one moment, how many times have you sincerely been wrong in the past? If the answer is any less than one million-billion times, you are lying (1 John 1:8-9). Stop it. Conceding a tightly held belief triggers our insecurities. Insecurities release our defense mechanisms. Soon, we’re arguing our position far beyond the evidence we’ve provided. Yet we wonder why all our conversations devolve into grudge matches.
Don’t hear this as an assault on having convictions, or a jab at the notion of absolute truth (that would be a truth claim of its own!) but rather, it’s an appeal to remember that we all have been desperately, hopelessly wrong at one point in our lives. If not for divine Truth saving the day (Titus 3:3-6, John 1:14-17), we would still be stuck in the same loop of stupid. Humility is always a worthy pursuit. Always.
Next time someone posts that absolutely egregious link bait on Facebook or Twitter (or some other comment box of your perusing) I suggest a “ceasefire” with our keyboards. Instead, make a phone call (remember those?) and grab some coffee with that guy/gal that doesn’t think like you. I promise you will be one step closer to a productive and enriching discussion—where grace, truth, and understanding rules over bitter sniping and strings of exclamation points.