Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Obstacles to Constructive Debate

If we were to take the way-back machine to 20 years ago and tell the world that in the future we would be connected to one another on an infinite basis with a true "marketplace of ideas" (even a few different ones) to share our thoughts on politics, society, art, and anything else that may cross our brains, those stone-washed jean and flannel wearing spectators may presume we had solved most of the world's problems.

Instead, the people behind these platforms have determined that we really don't want to see things we disagree with, memes are better than political thought, and...well...sports.  Talking about sports is fine.  Always.

It made me think that we either lost, or never were prepared to use, a platform for constructive debate.  There are a few key impediments that I see over and over again whenever two (or more) people are circling around an issue of debate, yet never actually engaging one another towards a collaborative new understanding.  We argue without resolution.  We peel the apple, but never eat it.  Here are some of the reasons why:

1.  Alternative Sets of Facts - maybe I am glorifying our past, but it seems that not so long ago, you could cite Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, or the Washington Post for facts and not be undermined for doing so.  There were points of authority that most people would agree were "true".  The quip "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts" made sense because there was a foundational set of facts that you could turn to and say "I love you, my friend, but you are wrong."  That's just not true anymore.  The Internet has made us entitled to our own set of facts, even if they aren't true, so long as they "feel true" (i.e., they support our world-view).

2.  Questioning Motivations - This is not necessarily ad hominem, but skirts the line enough that it feels like a personal attack.  "You hold this position because you have something to gain or are ideologically wed to it."  You may as well say "I left my oven on and must close this argument in the least graceful way possible."  In pure debate, motivations are irrelevant.  You are testing the ideas on their intrinsic merits.  I would suggest that many people who know the most about certain important subjects have deeply personal motivations for holding the positions they do, but that does not invalidate their ability to defend that position when prompted to do so.

3.  Calling Hypocrite - The most juvenile response of them all.  It is the adult version of "that's not fair".  Let's all agree on something - in the universe of experience and complex nature of things, we can hold discordant positions.  In fact, I should probably say "seemingly discordant positions" considering that what may be hypocrisy to some is actually an inquiry away from explanation.  Also, we shouldn't be afraid to let people change their minds.  That's why you started the debate in the first place, right?  You wanted to change their mind.  Is the prize at the end of the discussion - "ha!  You're a hypocrite"?  Don't expect to be invited to too many dinner parties.

4.  Outrage Trolling - "How can you be mad about X, when Y is ruining our Z?"  Because I can.  Because America, that's why.  We all have different things that trigger our interest, concern, and response.  That's ok.  But if you engage on X, don't presume the right to tell people they should be talking about Y.  It's likely that people aren't talking about Y because you are an insufferable hysteric whenever the subject comes up and they are trying to save you from embarrassing yourself in public.

5.  Gang Debate - Facebook has an unfortunate tendency to attract the "me too's".  You may be engaging someone in a constructive discussion (with more ?'s than !'s), but that can easily be upset by someone else jumping in on either side committing a litany of the offenses noted above.  Don't be that guy/gal.  On Facebook or in public.

I apologize for the pedantic nature of this post, but if you prefer you can read this as "easy ways to escape a losing debate".

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!