Friday, December 27, 2013

How to Have an Argument, err Discussion Online

I spend a lot of time reading articles on the internet, far too much time. But maybe I'm being fairly productive during those times when I'm reading really smart, really good writing from those grappling with some of the most difficult issues of the day. The best writers tend to be located on sites that host views across the political spectrum and part of the reason these writers are so great, in my view, is because they have been challenged. They are read by people who disagree with them, they read others with whom they disagree, and they write and are driven to write from a place of tension and conflict.

These writers want to contribute to the great conversation that has been taken place since the beginning of the written word. There are many great forums for this kind of great writing, the two I frequent most frequently are The Atlantic and Slate, but there are others. Admittedly, these sites are not perfect, they both lean left, but given the nature of our political environment and the fact that people are seeking echo chamber validation for views they already hold, these sites are about as good as they get.

Contrast that with those sites that try to stay more politically pure:  Town HallThe National Review, or The Weekly Standard on the right or DailyKOS or Think Progress on the left. I notice this especially on the right wing sites, where the echo chamber is particularly loud. I understand this is a subjective opinion, but on average, these sites tend to emphasize stories and make political points that have very little relationship to the topics and points made on the other side, almost as if they are living in another universe.

One thing I am convinced of, however, the more broadly read a writer is, the more they have injected themselves into the middle of a conversation, the more frequently have they grappled with the big questions and dealt with challenges to their opinions, the smarter they are as writers. Similar to why Gandalf becomes the white wizard in LOTR only after his fight with Balrog, we become better when we struggle. It's why I think conservative thought has degraded over the years and why I struggle with the content on their websites, they have insulated themselves to a far greater extent than the liberal sites.

So, why should I care about any of this? I don't make my living writing on the internet. But I do love to learn. I love to grapple. I love to argue discuss big ideas with people who disagree with me. There are many out there who do, but there are also many who are turned off by the debate. Why? Because we too often do it wrong.

The problem with most internet debate, taking place in the comments section of a posted article, on facebook, twitter or between bloggers, is that in the heat of the moment, our point of view gets skewed. We come into it believing we have the answers and it's our own holy calling to convince the other that we're right. Our goal is to get the other person to change their poorly conceived, weak opinions to our own much more superior ideas conceived by a much more advanced mind. Can you see why this is a flawed approach?

Why We Disagree
But why do people disagree in the first place? I think there are many reasons, but here's a short collection of them

Different Backgrounds
We have different backgrounds and experiences which lead us to see the world in a different way informed by these differences. This is key. It doesn't mean we're wrong, but it does mean we're limited - all of us. Chances are on many issues, we're both right and we're both wrong. In other words, yes, what we're saying makes perfect sense, but only if you see the issue from my exact vantage point.

For this reason, it's vital that we seek empathy in our discussion, placing ourselves into the other's shoes, really trying to understand the issue from their perspective. Give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Different Foundational Opinions
We come to our opinions usually from a basic set of foundational principles. Whether or not you believe the courts over-stepped their bounds on the gay marriage ruling in Utah recently probably depends a lot on what you think the proper function of the judicial system is. And it probably depends even more on what your opinion on gay marriage is. It's frustrating to have a debate on an issue, when you disagree on the more fundamental issues driving these opinions.

The quicker you discover this and drive down to the more fundamental disagreements, the faster toward understanding you will get.

There are Really No Right or Wrong Answers
There are some issues where both ideas are viable approaches to solve the problem under discussion. Additionally, there are attributes about the world we live in that just lend themselves to unsolvable problems. There are all kinds of ideas out there on how to end poverty, none of them are likely to work or all of them may. We don't know, actually. For these ideas, it's best we just try them and see.

Why We Should Engage
The point here though is that the conversation is important. Admittedly, we should avoid hateful contention on any platform, but I think we can and should engage with others who have different opinions, perspectives, religious and political ideas than we do. In fact, living in the country we live in, with the political system we have inherited, our politics demand that we do.

How many of us complain about the utter incompetency of the US Congress, their failure to pass meaningful (or any) legislation, their unwillingness to cooperate or compromise? Our representatives behave in the way we do because they represent us who are behaving in the exact same way. If we want our representatives to compromise, we need to encourage them to do so. We have to be willing to support legislation that we will likely hate. Few of us are willing to give our representatives this kind of support.

The reason why this is important, though, is that likely we're wrong. Likely those people who disagree with us have good reason to do so. Willingness to compromise is a willingness to admit they we don't have all of the answers. That our ideas, left on their own devices, would probably hurt more people than help. Working together produces better legislation, better ideas come but only if we feel validated and listened to and only if we listen and validate.

Musicians are experts at this. They have learned to both listen and contribute at the same time.. To quote Daniel Barenboim from his  book, Music Quickens Time,
The way that people should play in an orchestra, when you sit in the orchestra, you have to give everything of yourself, everything you know, everything you feel, whatever comes to you, you have to give the maximum, otherwise you're not contributing to the collective effort, but at the same time, simultaneously, you have to listen to what others are playing, and what you say is in permanent relation to what they are saying. What you play in relation to what they are playing. If you are too loud, they won't be heard, if you are too soft, you won't support them. What better lesson for life do you want? Can you imagine if our politicians have to really contribute everything that they think and feel and at the same time listen to others."
That's what happens in a productive conversation We are forming music, with all of the tension and surprises good music contains, where all involved are both hearing and being heard. This is the environment where good ideas germinate.

A Better Way to Discuss
The problem here is that most people engage in an on-line debate all wrong. Our goal is not to learn but to convince. The problem as I mentioned, is that we're already on shaky ground because we are more likely wrong than right (or if not wrong, most likely too narrow, or too limited to be useful) because we as limited human beings who just don't know very much.

Rather, if we could change our paradigm. The goal should not be to convince but to discover. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Recognize that they likely have really good reasons to believe the way they do. Expedite the discussion by attempting to make their argument for them as soon as you understand what their argument is.

Why this is Important
An idea came to me in the context of the gay marriage debate. First, consider that this debate seems to be winding toward an abrupt resolution with the help of a series of court decisions. I do realize, even without judicial help, that the democratic momentum seems to be moving in the pro-gay marriage direction. But to get a full, nation-wide democratic victory would take time. Given the constitutional barriers to major legislative national movement and the weakness of our current Congress, a full national democratic decision on the gay marriage is likely at least a decade away.

Rather than wait, it looks like the issue is being resolved by judicial fiat. What was once a broad conversation including, most especially, churches and church members and individuals from all parts of society, we are leaving this issue to be resolved by the elite few who happen to be sitting in the judge's seat. This will prematurely end the conversation and that is disappointing.

Since most people like to use 1960's civil rights analogy to further the case on gay marriage, let me do the same. There was a strong Democratic movement to end the unjust Jim Crow laws culminating in a series of important legislative victories. But this was also pushed forward with important court case decisions. Given the nature of this issue and the extreme injustices being inflicted on black America, over-turning these laws was extremely important. Providing legal protection to allow blacks to go to school, purchase homes, and obtain jobs where-ever they like was (and is) vital.

But one side-effect of the way this issue was resolved is that it lead to two decades of political correctness and a witch hunt to banish all racism from the public sphere. A part of me wonders whether we really were better off censuring even those who made dumb comments on race. There were (and are) a lot of people who sincerely hold incredibly naive, incorrect and damaging views on race. To completely come to terms with and move away from these views, you need a safe place to express them, to have them sincerely challenged. Because we would rather shut them down rather than engage and convince, I wonder if the collateral damage was much worse resulting in harder-to-detect racist laws causing considerable harm to black communities.

It's not politically correct and certainly not accurate to believe that blacks commit more drug crime than whites, but the fact is that people broadly still believe this to be so. We have had centuries of slavery and racism in this country, to believe that we as a country can collectively pivot on a dime to the more correct position just does not seem realistic. Perhaps if we would have cut cultural racists a little bit of slack. Allow them a bit of time to work through their accidental racism, perhaps we could have avoided the third iteration of Jim Crow laws shepherding far too many of our black young men through our prison system. Perhaps if we were little more forgiving on speech and a lot less forgiving on racist legislation that have decimated poor, black neighborhoods, we would be better off as a country.

That is why we need the dialogue. The conversations are often messy and discouraging. But we should be really careful to limit speech in all of its forms. Rather we should do the opposite. Fewer echo chambers and more forums where opinions are discussed in a forum of natural disagreement. Where the objective is not to convince but to learn and improve.

To be clear I'm not excusing hateful, abusive speech. There is no excuse for name-calling or hate in any form and those who resort to it should be censured, but we really need to be careful what we categorize as hate speech. The motivation of the speaker is important.

And when we error, we should error on the side of open engagement and avoid limiting political correctness and any other kind of censure in all of its forms.


David G. said...

Sorry Scott, but at present the biggest echo chamber is on the Left rather than the Right. You've heard of the discontent of Tea Party? Democrats currently have nothing on scale in terms of such internal disagreements. And you accuse the Right to of making "political points that have very little relationship" to the core issue or address the criticism? Then how do you explain the Left wanting to pass anti-gun legislation after Newton that would not have stopped Newton while parading the families in front of cameras? If that isn't ignoring the opposition as well as the cheapest form of political points, I don't know what is. Meanwhile, yes, the Right did talk a lot about Benghazi, but certainly the Left hasn't come clean with information about their lies, cover up, and incompetence. There is plenty of blame to go around, but if you think the Right is the problem (or the bigger problem) I don't think you've been paying attention to 2013, which many historians are claiming to be Obama's worst year thus far.

Finally, I am troubled by your "lets take our sweet time on fixing injustices" stance. Laws and courts are NOT for helping oppressors gradually give up their oppression. I think you should run your Gay marriage has been debated for decades now. Enough words... Time for the courts to make a decision.


tempe turley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tempe turley said...

I agree that the left is not perfect by any stretch and I also agree that there is some some of internal dissension on the right.

My point is that there it appears to be more willingness from the left to authentically engage with disagreement from the right than the reverse.

What is the left-leaning equivalent of "The Atlantic" or "Slate" or even the NY Times? If there is one, I want to know because I would like to read it.

National Review has a smattering of smart thinkers that deal with the best arguments from the left, but the Atlantic actually hires and publishes smart conservative voices as does the NY Times as does the Washington Post...

And when I listen carefully to Tea Party rhetoric, most of it sounds pretty conservative boilerplate to me. I admit there's a strong libertarian strand within it but that's as far as the disagreement goes.

I disagree with your last paragraph. The courts don't step in just because people are tired of debate. If you don't have the votes to pass legislation, you don't win.

Gay marriage advocates (as far as I can tell) are using the equal protection clause in the constitution ( as the basis for over-ruling state laws.

Some view that as legitimate. I think this violates federalism inappropriately.

I would prefer that if we want national uniformity on gay marriage, you find a way to do so through Congress. It would be better to make the conservative case for gay marriage in a way that moves enough Republican decision makers such that legislation can pass through both the House and the Senate. I admit this is a long-shot given the current dynamics, but things can change quickly. I do understand why the gay marriage advocates have no patience for this, especially since it seems judicial victories are likely. I just worry about the precedent and mostly I just want to complain about it.

Because a legislative approach allows the debate to continue, considers alternative compromises and gives time for society to adjust far more broadly than otherwise. Important, I think it would more feasibly assuage the fears that religious institutions reasonably have that changes in marriage laws will marginalize them if they don't also conform.

David G. said...

Hi Scott... I think you did your posting a disservice by overly and unfairly bashing the Right. In essence, but bashing the Right by claiming they are the larger problem you (a) show your bias (b) believe your side is superior and (c) build walls such that the opposition may violate the very principles you are trying to engage in. Your bias also comes through on gay marriage, and I don't sense you've entered the gay marriage debate with the same 'engaging' attitude you encourage others to have on other subjects.

I don't believe that the Atlantic is left leaning so no points there. As for Slate, I am not sure they are as balanced as you think. I believe something like 55 out 57 of their writers voted for Obama in 2008. The Left is better at marketing and bogus claims of "working across the aisle" then the Right, but honestly I am not seeing this amazing effort to hear the other side. I believe that you believe it though.

Finally, I think the legislative debate you desire is nothing more than a thinly veiled delay tactic and also an attempt to result in some water down version of justice. For example, I believe the kind of legislative goal that you seek would be equivalent to "dont ask, dont tell" or "separate but equal". I think it is hard for you to truly engage on this subject due to your religious bias on this matter.

Despite my complaints towards your posting, I do agree with you that people (including myself) should engage more often rather than initially trying to convince. With one exception: the Second Amendment! :)