There is a profound paradox that comes from a literate society. The modern human ability to consume information and expand our awareness of possibilities leads to entrenchment in our conclusions, and in different ways. The assumption might have been that information dissemination would lead to greater understanding and universality of ideas, but language often has been the bearer of destruction. With the advent of written information, the pen may have been mightier than the sword, but it has signed many acts of war. This entry is an attempt to understand why. Here, I treat a debate as an archetype of all differences of opinion and values, and the natural interactions between them. My goal is to give perspective on the nature of dialog with someone who doesn’t share your opinions completely, and offer considerations of carrying on the dialog without the need to pull a blade out or go home to plan an ambush.
Here’s what you likely know from experience: countless debates at restaurants and bars, on Facebook walls, in classrooms or workspaces, and in your head at two a.m. responding to an ignorant comment made by the old man in the bread aisle to his wife about the real way to fix the economy. Even away from the battlefront it’s more of the same: endless talks about what else could be done to get people on “our side,” and how much easier life would be if they were just a little more realistic. We are a culture of information, where different conclusions put us in different camps, and a culture with few tools to breach camp walls civilly.
We are often impassioned by the profound implications our opinions can hold. Each person holds a vote toward political action. We spend energy insisting on better evidence and better rhetoric to pierce the foundations of the opponent views, with the goal of winning voters to our camp or condemning them.
Suppose correct political action and the ethical groundwork behind it was as clearly understood as math and physics. Even though it isn’t, we grumble as if the opposing view should be punished for not carrying the one or remembering to divide the remainder. We despise them for their inability to draw circles perfectly.
Despite (or probably because) the generally accepted truth that ways to a solution are unclear, our culture seems to encourage the opportunity to openly attack each other’s political math. But regarding the concrete truths communication has afforded civilization, such as geometry and the natural sciences, we don’t hold contempt for one person’s struggle to understand. So when matters of truth are grayer, such as politics, why is our landscape of dialog so barbarous?
Because circles don’t pay taxes and long division doesn’t alleviate the inequalities of social reform. Unlike the skills of Elementary school, dilemmas both personal and social exist partly because we do not have the tools to objectively measure the ethical course of action. The first step to reforming the arena for a political discussion is to admit this. There are different ways to do political and ethical math, and there are varying degrees of skill, but everyone has to do it.
One source of frustration comes in the extreme compression that occurs in communicating. Wide ranges of grievances, personal experience and generations of stories are truncated into sentences of policy, traffic laws, and the rights of individuals. Language allows us to touch on our experiences and convey them conceptually, to trade methods, and make suggestions. Society allows us to automate and expedite the process.
Usually the oversimplification comes with the cost of not accounting for all our experiences. My political argument that forgetsto carry the one may have an unforeseen impact on the amount of taxes you pay. Yet the natural pressures in our lives constantly turn us to look for solutions in an attempt to alleviate. Everybody has a need to do this political math, and it seems one neighbor’s brand of solutions stands in the way of another neighbor’s ideal form of progress.
The notion of debating politics or any matter with social implications occurs organically, because we’re all in the same boat, and we all have the insight to see real problems. It may seem that if we can increase the clarity of our evidence, agree on terms of rhetoric, be more civil in our language, there is hope that an agreeable solution can surface. It is a fundamental mistake to think the solution to social problems lies in the convergence of our individual opinions for one.
Two people on a Facebook thread or work environment can use the same words yet for different reasons and with different meanings, and certainly, with different experiences behind them. Anyone who has made it this far in the article probably has their favorite examples of the frustrations that tend follow.
Suppose we are able to create an arena where all the best evidence and rhetoric were effectively convened on opposite sides of a table. The two views had agreed on rules of civil discourse and necessary definitions with such faith that they permitted the outcome of the debate to decide matters conclusively. The winning perspective would be exercised nationally. What if a political chess match decided the fates of countries?
Imagine pro-life proponents supporting the black pieces, pro-choice behind white (these assignments are arbitrary). Tax increases behind the queen pawn moving up two squares while immigration reform, gun laws, increased welfare and minimum wage, harsher international sanctions, a bigger defense budget, and stimulus packages wait on the sidelines.
At the end of the tournament, grandmaster politicians and ethicists wielding pieces like arguments in a debate, pinning down the value of human integrity on a trapped queen, stand before a defeated opponent with the right to declare their values as just. The judge pulls all contenders into a final arena before national television and objectively announces the fate of the next four years to your extreme satisfaction or disappointment.
Let’s make the next, unrealistic leap. What if a political chess match could objectively illuminate what was right and good for the masses? Finally, all your life’s experiences and attempts for meaning, corroborations of truths, efforts to understand a fair world, and expectations can be objectively vindicated, or rejected. You no longer need to define your own values; they would be decided for you. Wouldn’t that be nice? I doubt many would think so and fortunately that’s quite an unlikely reality.
In fact, all you need to reject this is voting power. Suppose for instance that instead of announcing the decided political action of the next four years, the judge simply announced the outcome and left you to enter the voting booths anonymously. It’s likely the clear outcomes of the debates would not be reflected in the elections. Most of us deeply value the personal component to deciding what is right, and very few of our ideologies (whether uniform or individual) contain a disclaimer: “by the way, there could be a completely better method than this one.”
The Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky could’ve decimated American Bobby Fischer 100 times during the infamous cold war match-up and it still would’ve been unlikely an American in the audience finally said, “I guess that decides it, the Russians are right.” Objective truths conveyed efficiently, backed by evidence and sound logic seems to do little to change hearts. Put differently, do you willingly befriend or support someone whose intent is to demonstrate you are wrong, however right they may be? Herein lays the fundamental failure of most debating. The truth of a solution isn’t given merit, because we first expect our experiences to be validated.
Fine, so showing someone how to draw a circle better and why their sums are being improperly computed isn’t good enough to get them to change. We should give them free food, while we do it. Or we should sit them down for a complimentary explanation of why politics is important to take seriously. If all we do is try to do is compensate the flaw, we may as well also give them curfews in the meantime. Dignity tends to prevent us from changing people, and telling someone to swallow their pride won’t get us much farther.
If a unified solution exists, it lies in converging our problems. It would require not an objective understanding, but a subjective one of the various lives and experiences that constitute our society. In other words, getting to know what others’ lives are like as they see it. That sounds too touchy-feely to me, which basically means we’re going to need to give out a lot of free food if we expect people to do this. But in the meantime, our desperation for solutions and readiness to propose them is the downfall of any possibility for a useful unification of one.