Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Let's Not Fight, Let's Argue

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good debate, a healthy discussion, a friendly intellectual exchange. I thoroughly enjoy exchanging views with others, especially when we disagree. During my time in seminary, I was told by my rector, "You can be very direct with people, almost challenging; but eventually people learn that you aren't attacking them--it's just the way you interact" (or something to that effect). No sense in beating around the bush, right, as long as you're respectful?

During my novitiate year, my classmates and I served once a week as volunteer chaplains at a local hospital, and at the end of the day we would have discussion sessions with our supervisor to talk about general issues related to being a chaplain. One day we were talking about conflict and dealing with difficult patients, and I said, "I think I'd be most uncomfortable being in a room with two people who are fighting with each other." One of my classmates said, "I find that surprising; you love a good argument."

Here I find a perfect example of a distinction which seems to be getting lost in our present-day discourse of tweets and posts and status updates, not to mention the more traditional modes of editorials and essays: there is a difference between an argument and a fight.

I like argument. To argue is to set out a connected series of propositions leading to a conclusion, and to engage the propositions and conclusion set out by another on the same topic, with each party analyzing the soundness of the other's argumentation: the definition of terms, the relation between the premises, and the relation between the premises and the conclusion. Each person implicitly agrees that these are the standards to be used, like two men in a duel who have agreed fight for first blood and not attempt any serious wounds, low blows, or dirty tricks.

If we were going to have an argument about, say, whether the death penalty should be abolished in this country, then we would discuss the relevant factors: the purpose of such a punishment, the nature of justice, whether the act is intrinsically evil or potentially moral depending on the circumstances, the question of necessity, and so on. That could be an enlightening and fruitful discussion.

I don't like fights. To fight is to leave the field of rational discourse where the weapons and the rules are agreed upon and honored, and descend to the level of a no-holds-barred broo-ha-ha. In a fight we have dropped our reason as a hockey player drops his gloves: at this point, we have exited the game with its rules and restrictions, and stepped into a moment where the only objective is to impose your will upon the other party, by whatever means necessary. You might knee him in the gut, or pull his jersey over his head, or grab his hair--whatever you need to do to get him down and get him out of your way.

So, if we were going to have a fight about whether the death penalty should be abolished, we wouldn't discuss the purpose of punishments or the nature of justice; instead, we'd call each other names like "bleeding heart" or "blood-lusting savage," and we'd accuse of each other of bad motives with terrible outcomes, like endangering our children or perpetuating the cycle of violence. We would seethe and boil and doubt each other's humanity, and in the end we would consider ourselves victorious if we had shouted the loudest or made the most scathing remark.

Just go to any message board or discussion forum or comments page on the Internet. It doesn't matter if we're talking about abortion or redefining marriage or whether Jack White is actually a good guitar player: within five posts, people are calling each other vile names, and comparing each other to dead dictators, and using language that would embarrass a longshoreman.

This is stupid. This is counter-productive. This doesn't get us anywhere. No, it does get us somewhere: it gets us farther apart than when we started. When we fight, we ignore what's really relevant to the situation. We put ourselves and our feelings first, and not the truth. Let's not do this anymore. Let's not fight. Can't we just argue?

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