I’ve always found the overused expression “Having a dialogue” annoying. It’s never been clear to me what simply talking about something—specifically a problem that needs to be addressed—can do to formulate a solution. Logic and rational thinking have rules and to simply jabber away to be heard and not follow these rules does nothing but blow hot air (or make the talker feel good about him or herself).
My former philosophy teacher and friend, David Mangum, used to tell me that if, before engaging an opponent in an argument, they don’t agree to admitting being wrong on one or more points you shouldn’t go any further. I always thought he was right and found that his advice saved me a lot of time from fruitless debates.
Were he still here my sage instructor would be appalled at the degree to which his debate rule applies today. It also would have saddened him, I’m sure, to see how angrily dogmatic people have become. So much so, I believe, he might have softened his own stance.
That stance, you see, assumed people of different views and theories would even attempt to talk to each other in the first place. These days, with the proliferation and dominance of the internet and social media, why bother wasting your time with those who have the wrong stance, i.e., those who disagree with you? Why indeed? You can proselytize and thump your ideological chest all day without leaving Facebook or Twitter.
It’s this type of isolation that is frightening to me in ways that, I think, have had serious consequences for our culture and our society. Not much social skill is needed to hide behind a computer and play Monday morning quarterback. Traditionally, that’s why institutions of higher learning and classrooms of any kind have been so important: having debate and discussions around others would hone thinking skills, expose students to different views and demonstrate how to reach conclusions or agreements that would be satisfactory to all involved. In person.
Such results require civility and courtesy too, though, along with logic and reasoning. It’s a lot harder to hurl epithets eye to eye than it is to type a few profanities into cyberspace. Because of that fact, the floodgates have opened and, in the process, drowned our common culture in ways that we are just now starting to see, especially in the political realm.
It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, druid or Hare Krishna—a society’s survival ultimately depends on consensus. To be sure, a consensus is not always correct or true. But the means used to arrive at such a consensus can also be employed to change, modify or drop it altogether. Those means—rational, civil, intelligent and respectful discourse—are fast becoming relics in today’s partisan and easily inflamed society.
I can tell you from personal experience and contact that most advocates of a given political or ideological persuasion communicate only with themselves today: leftists chat with leftists, libertarians with libertarians and so forth. In their isolated, clannish screen-enclosed worlds the true believers are free to kvetch, moan, groan and attack opponents to their heart’s content. And if ever an outsider dare pop up in their little utopia there’s usually always hell to pay.
Thus the modern spectacle of demonizing opponents, slurring them, cursing them, doing whatever necessary to discredit them except understand their position on common themes and trying to persuade them. Persuasion? What’s that? Who today really takes the time to truly understand what others may think and how—if conversion is the point—to use reason to encourage them to change their mind?
This spectacle is, really, historically unprecedented. Sure, defenders of the internet point to sporadic nasty episodes in our nation’s history; but I challenge you to go back and read op-eds written even 20 years ago and see if they’re as awful as what passes for commentary today.
It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, druid or Hare Krishna—a society’s survival ultimately depends on consensus
Plus, sanctimony runs high over social media. You’re against gay marriage? An actual believer in climate change? Opposed to gun control? Even if the disagreement is not nasty it can surely get condescending and patronizing. Sarcasm and irony doesn’t offer much in the way of rational discussion.
Life is short. And our nation and culture is not doing too well right now. It would behoove those of us who care to re-examine—or even be completely certain of—our own stances to hear others out (even if that might initially seem appalling) and see if common ground can be forged. We’re doomed if we don’t. Free speech may indeed be free but it’s not easy. The apparent equation today of “free” with “anything goes” has had disastrous results, not the least of which is the utter destruction of debate.
So in spite of my former disdain and reluctance—but for nothing less than the sake of our future—I’m actually going to suggest that those of us with specific views “have a dialogue” with someone else holding an opposite definite view. In person. Today. Maybe over a cup of coffee or a cocktail. Who knows? You might learn something you didn’t know. You might make a friend.
You might even change your mind. Or possibly your new friend’s mind.
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