Sunday, October 30, 2011

Room For Debate

I was reading Public Debate, Dialog, and, by Deborah Teramis Christian, and started thinking again about the nature of public debate, especially as it pertains to the Internet.

My personal understanding of things is that HOW we debate really hasn't changed, but WHAT we debate has. While many have lamented that the anonymity afforded by the Internet have lead to people being disinhibited in the way that they speak to each other, it's just as important to realize that this phenomenon also extends to the topics under discussion. Despite the fact that you're never supposed to talk about sex, politics, and religion (and/or money), you could float the entire Web on discussions of nothing else. And the issue with these topics, and those that touch on (or trample over) them isn't that we can't manage to talk about them in an adult way - it's that most of the time we don't actually know what we're talking about.

Now, before you pipe in to assure me that you are QUITE knowledgeable about sex, thank you very much, that's not really what I mean. Many of us are quite well versed in the topics under consideration. But we don't realize that they aren't really the focus of the conversation. This was driven home to me when I was watching Niall Ferguson and Jeffrey Sachs on CNN's GPS show this morning. Ferguson, in my opinion was attempting to speak to the facts, to try and talk about what had really brought down the global economic system. Sachs, on the other hand, was defending his moral instincts, life experience and feelings. In short order, they were talking past one another. It became fairly clear that Sachs, feeling that Ferguson was directly attacking him, was responding in kind, accusing Ferguson of "name calling" and claiming that he is "confusing so many issues." By the end of the discussion, it was clear that Niall Ferguson was speaking about flaws in Jeffrey Sachs' argument. Jeffrey Sachs, on the other hands, was discussing flaws in Niall Ferguson.

This is not surprising. Once, in a discussion on Google+ someone remarked that if you referred to a movie or other media as "lame" you were "automatically" calling out as stupid anyone who liked said media. In a culture in which we don't often differentiate (linguistically, at least) between our esthetic judgements and objective findings of fact, one can see how a discussion shifts from the merits to someone's point to a heated argument about the people involved and/or their own feelings of legitimacy.

The issue is not, as you might expect, that we don't pick up on subtext. In fact, the problem might be quite the opposite, that we are TOO focused on perceived subtexts, even (or especially) when the speaker/writer does not intend them. Case in point: I, for my part, am of the opinion that a primary reason that it difficult for Americans to talk about policy is that we each tend to see our own viewpoints as simple and obvious - anyone who puts more than a moment's rational thought with an open mind to the topic should realize the facts lead them exactly to where the facts lead us. Therefore we tend to have little or no respect for those whose viewpoints differ from our own. They're cretins, dupes, shills, whatever, but the reason for our disagreement is that the person on the other side is either unintelligent, incredulous or immoral. This questioning of the judgment or thoughtfulness of someone that you claim to trying to persuade is both glaringly obvious to me (after a post on Seth Godin's blog pointed it out to me in the first place) and just as obviously counter-productive. But, as my father used to say, "obvious" means that you're only person who can see it. So while many of the discussions that I've observed have eventually produced intimations or outright statements that one or both parties are stupid, being used or actively seeking to undermine the cause of right and justice, the perception that a subtext of active disrespect is at work tends to be mine and mine alone.

And because the subtexts are perceived/unintended, the responses they provoke nearly always catch the target off-guard. And if they then respond to a perceived subtext in what's being said to them... well, you can see how things quickly go off the rails. What's infuriating about this is how difficult it is to control, even when you're aware of it. I know that the perception of a speaker disrespecting others tends to set me off - especially when I agree with what the actual point that speaker is making, and I'm aware that I'm usually the only one who sees disrespect, and I still tend to come out swinging. And I'm usually surprised when the person I'm responding to is surprised that I see them as being disrespectful to others.

As we become more comfortable discussing topics that carry perceived subtexts that are very meaningful for us, I think that we will encounter this more and more. And unless we become not only more aware of it, but learn to exercise control over it, our debates will continue to produce copious heat, but precious little light.

1 comment:

Teramis said...

You make many accurate observations here, Aaron, and do a fine job of articulating what can be a very tangled topic.

I think one of the issues further complicating the public discussion issue is the fact that relatively few people are versed in the discipline of logical argumentation. Making factual claims that support an argument, avoiding logical fallacies (including ad hominem attacks, as in the tv example you gave), things like that. A person doesn't need to take a logic class to learn this stuff, but a critical thinking class sure wouldn't hurt a whole lotta folks.

A great many would-be debaters realize they are speaking at cross-purposes with others but can't figure out how to build an argument that is effective, and persuade others that what they are saying has merit. I think a great deal of this boils down to the need to learn communication skills. Folks who want their opinions to be taken seriously owe it to themselves to learn such things, or be resigned to being not really heard most of the time.