Why Doesn’t Anybody Argue Anymore?

The good old days.

An alarming number of people no longer seem ready, willing or able to argue their points of view. Wrestling with ideas has given way to … wrestling. This is obvious and the evidence is everywhere:

  • So-called news programs feature talking heads ripping each other apart.
  • Friends and relatives stop speaking to each other because of differences in politics or religion.
  • Passion for a particular cause has replaced passion for working through causes of disagreement.
  • Social media has become a very loud and very partisan platform for attacking “the enemy.”

Well, as the cartoonist Walt Kelly said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The question is why. Why are we unready, unable and unwilling to argue our point of view? Why has a willingness to  listen and compromise given way to pushing an agenda?  Why are we losing our ability and desire to engage in healthy debate?

Several reasons come to mind.

Lack of confidence in the argument. Some people simply don’t feel confident in defending their position. Maybe they do not feel articulate enough, or informed enough, or familiar enough with the counterarguments.

Fear of confrontation. Some people just don’t like personal confrontation. In the extreme, they become social media “lurkers,” or use fake names or no names when publishing their hostile social media posts or comments. Most of us want to avoid confrontation to one degree or another, but the advent of  online, anonymous self-publishing has brought out the worst in people, turning minor tendencies into serious afflictions.

No real understanding of the facts. Some people really don’t know why they think what they think. They get their opinions off the shelf rather than building them from the ground up. These people embrace whatever their favorite celebrity thinks, or conform to the agenda of their preferred political platform, pastor or news organization. There have always been and always will be people who form opinions about things in this way, and it is certainly not necessary for everyone in a culture to be a Plato or an Aristotle for that culture to thrive. However, there is a tipping point. When the time comes that too few people can reason their way to a conclusion, and when too few people are engaging in  reasonable debate of competing conclusions, then that culture is doomed to stagnate, devolve and eventually come to blows.

A self-induced screen stupor. How can you develop your thinking muscles when you spend all your time playing video games, or texting, or playing games on your mobile phone, or mindlessly chatting on social media, or allowing your life in some other way to be sucked into a screen?  Screens are not the only source of distraction, only the most common. But there are many contenders: Music, drugs and spectator sports have the same effect on our mental engagement when they became obsessions.

Not viewing their opponents as worthy of debate. The most dangerous cause of disappearing debate is the  tendency of people to view their ideological opponents as subhuman.You don’t debate with a dog. Respect for an opposing point of view has become a rare commodity, and a loss of compassion is an inevitable consequence of this. Having constructive and spirited debate requires mutual respect, a feeling that we are all in this together, that we have more in common and more important things in common that whatever differences separate us politically or religiously in whatever other way.

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

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