Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why I Debate

For those of you who have followed my on-line presence at all know that I love the debate, and lately I've spent a lot of time in the political arena. I feel some amount of guilt about it, but at the same time I realize there are some benefits to it as well. But it got me thinking how pervasive this need to debate is and to me it seems like its part of the human condition. This propensity toward conflict and competition. Wars are even to some extent a form of debate at a large scale.

Obviously, I have experience with debate almost as far back as I can remember: with my parents over what to me were arbitrary rules, or with friends over sports teams or favorite athletes or what girl was the hottest at my school.

But now with technology the terms and means of the debate have amplified and have grown in its pervasiveness. I remember in high school with my very far right ideology and some notion of my far away sister's far left ideology reading an op ed in my local Yuma Daily Sun wishing I had the energy to cut out the article and send it to them, sure I would convince them my view was right.

Imagine how I'm affected now, when I am bombarded by so many incredibly high quality opinions, following as I do blogs written by the smartest folks in their fields with the tools to distribute links to those blogs via twitter (which so far I haven't participated in), facebook (which I've recently jumped in), yahoogroup mailing lists (I've started a political mailing list something like ten years ago with a handful of my friends and its still going strong), and now via comments on my blog.

But what is all of this debate getting me? Definitely it consumes a massively finite resource, my time. And I'm not getting any financial benefit from it. Am I really making the world a better place by pushing my opinions on onto the world? Am I improving myself?

Well, I don't have the answer to any of those questions. But at the very least, its my hobby, and its a hobby I need to do a better job at constraining so it doesn't crowd out other stuff I really should be engaged in but perhaps don't enjoy as much or at least doesn't have near the psychological pull as this does.

But at its very core, debate and discussion, when done right, is absolutely essential. In my work context, we're engaged in the creative, at times difficult job to produce software that is easy to use, highly available, and highly profitable (meaning desirable by large numbers of people). To get there, you simply cannot lock yourself in a room and pound out code. I'm at my best when I'm constantly engaged with my co-workers discussing problems, arguing design strategies.

It works incredibly well when you're able to suspend your ego and are willing to concede when you feel another's opinions are probably better than yours. More often, the discussion extends my thinking. Ideas come to me that never would have come in isolation and not just ideas that are explicitly stated by a colleague. Many times, ideas are triggered by something they've said. Its true synergy, and its intoxicating and exciting.

What's happening here, though, is that we're not engaged abstractly. We're actively struggling and working in the domain, but at the same time step back and engage. I think actually grinding through difficult work first before, after and while you discuss keeps you grounded and humbled.

I love to read about politics. I'm not completely sure why. Health care and our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are completely important. And part of my duty as a citizen of a democratic country is to stay engaged so that my elected officials are held accountable. Part of staying engaged is both reading what the experts and reporters are writing, but testing my assumptions through discussion with my friends, my fellow citizens. Facebook has been a surprising fruitful source of this kind of debate, although I feel slightly guilty bating folks into a discussion.

In my experience with political debate, I'm not sure I have ever changed someone else's mind. But, why I've never explicitly conceded a position while in the throws of a debate. Usually, for me, over time, having the opportunity to hear counter-arguments allows me to appreciate someone else's point of view. And there are times when I have changed positions, or at least moved to a more full, sophisticated point of view on the issue.

I am of the belief (to some extent anyway) that at their core most people essentially agree on most issues. We tend to focus extreme attention on those points where we disagree. Or hold tight to a narrow (although legitimate) point of view without allowing ourselves to understand that most issues are complex enough to allow both people to be right even though they seem to hold contradictory positions.

For me, though, the act of discussion is highly valuable for me. It increases my own understanding of the issue. Especially when it comes into direct conflict with someone else's. When they challenge my assumptions, I'm forced to do research, to validate assumptions. I'm forced to think through my talking points more carefully, compare them with my own experiences, data I've read in the past. My understanding grows.

Finally, I've been thinking a bit about religious debate. I went on my mission in Alabama, and I had many opportunities to engage with Christian fundamentalist who were convinced that the tenants of the Mormon faith were dragging me and my fellow members to hell. And I loved the debate and had a difficult time just letting stuff go. I would hold on to investigators far too long until they basically had to tell me explicitly not to come back.

But thing about religious faith (and its somewhat true about politics as well by the way), is that its an individual and highly personal pursuit. You can't really argue faith. But you can discuss faith. That is why testimony meetings are such a central tenant to the Mormon faith. That's why missionaries are counceled to both teach and to testify. In some sense its a debate I guess, but its more of a discussion, or really its a personal expression.

Religion at its core is a show and tell. We are all spiritual beings and we all have a variety of spiritual experiences. And I think the act of expressing ourselves to someone else intensifies our own faith in many of the same ways engaging in a political discussion with someone else increases or understanding of the issue.

With religious debate, I think there's plenty of room to get into political like discussions, looking at historical data, scripture, personal experience. But at its core, its a spiritual engagement and if you lose that, you miss out on the benefits of the discussion as well.

In debate, its always important to listen to the other side, "to seek first to understand" if I can borrow from Covey. In faith based engagement, listening with an open heart is vital. Because you need a sense of openness and honesty. Its an expression, and to increase the learning experience, the act of expression must be honest. Both sides benefit as a result.

I think this sort of engagement is essential and vital for everyone of any faith. And it would do us a lot of good if there was more opportunity to engage across religious lines, although admittedly its a challenging thing to do.

But I'm convinced that engagement and debate is vitally important. But I think the benefits are enhance when its coupled with real struggle and hard work. In my work environment, discussion is vital but only when coupled by my individual hard work. Similarly, we should be engaged in the personal struggle for spiritual and intellectual growth both as individual human beings and as citizens in our community and country. And as we couple our personal work with an engagement with others, we can hopefully stay humble and willing to learn from each other. I think those are the conditions required to justify debate. Conditions I probably need to meet more often.

1 comment:

H said...

On politics, I don't know that you have changed my mind entirely, but you have "at least moved to a more full, sophisticated point of view on the issue." I I definitely use our opposing views to research and get behind my own decisions better :)

On religion, I'm not sure it is a debatable topic. Discussion, yes. I used to have a Jehovah's Witness coming over to talk and I told her up front I was very firm in my faith but she was welcome to come over to talk any time. The one time I was in a situation that someone was seriously trying to debate my religion with me I answered with "because it was true" and they couldn't go any further. How do you argue that, right?!