Anyone who follows my blogs knows that I am an advocate for free speech. I generally have no problem speaking my mind, and I value the opinions of others even when I disagree with them. I like healthy back and forth discourse unless it gets personal or ugly. While there is no law against belittling someone, I find it unnecessary and offensive. In general if a person’s argument is only to make fun of others, it indicates that they really have no rationale for their beliefs.
I was trained in the rules of competitive debate. I learned how to research both sides of an argument, defend either side and refute the presentation of my opponent. Ridicule or sarcasm was not a winning strategy. I had to be ready with factual evidence to prove my points. The more expert the information that I conveyed was, the more likely I would win. Sadly debates that I see today, whether with members of a panel or in the political realm, tend to deteriorate into challenges of who can talk over the other person with the most audacious insults. I find them to be informative only to the extent that they identify persons who don’t actually have much to say.
In college I had to write countless papers. Many of them were persuasive, and I did not have the freedom to choose a particular side. There were times when I was successful at convincing my readers to do or believe something with which I did not actually agree. Such experiences taught me to seriously study situations and issues with an open mind before drawing conclusions. They were also enjoyable exercises for me. Since then I have taken great delight in sitting with a group of people willing to dialog in a polite and meaningful manner. I don’t mind at all when a diversity of ideas and opinions are offered. In fact, I prefer that to sitting inside an echo chamber where everyone sounds the same.
Many people have lost the skill of active listening and persuasive discussion. They begin planning their rebuttals before they even hear the totality of the points that the other person is making. Often they become so emotionally unhinged that they descend into insulting the other person’s intelligence or even their appearance or personality. Sadly this type of debate is accepted far too often. The goal is to shut someone down rather than to rationally defend an idea.
I remember watching the first televised debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. While I was quite young at the time and never a Nixon fan, it bothered me that so many people focused on his appearance during the back and forth, instead of what he was saying. I felt that somehow such reactions were missing the point of having two political candidates present and defend their beliefs. Somehow that first venture into a national debate has only deteriorated more and more over the decades. Now people laugh at jabs about an opponent’s wife or the size of a candidate’s hands as though the ones able to amuse us are somehow stronger leaders than those unwilling to descend into the depths.
I would be much happier if we had formalized Socratic discussions or Lincoln/Douglas style debates with rules that kept each speaker focused on issues rather than personal attacks. It’s one thing to refute a person’s platform, but another to insult their family. It may be free speech, but it is really lazy speech. A more formal approach would help us to determine truth rather than feelings.
I recently brought up a topic on Facebook that prompted many response from multiple sides of the issue. I did my best to keep everyone focused on providing support for their statements rather than being sidetracked by snarky digs at the people who disagreed with them. For the most part a very healthy debate ensued with only a few off-topic regressions entering the conversation. At the end everyone agreed that it had been helpful to understand how and why people were taking different sides.
Many of the problems that we have in our society today come from misguided attempts to derail important discourse. We have trouble finding common ground because we continually fight civil wars of words. We approach important issues like combatants unwilling to compromise even if it means accomplishing nothing. So many problems go unanswered unless there is a plurality of like-minded people to push their way through while totally ignoring the concerns of the minority opponents. It results in a constant state of discontent from one side or another. It’s no way to run anything, much less a government.
I know that these are things we don’t really enjoy thinking about. We allow the degradation of our discourse because we don’t like to rock the boat. All the while it only seems to become worse because we have done nothing to point out the flaws of debate by insult. We have the power to stop it, but it would mean voting against anyone who uses such means to gain power and anyone who supports them as well. Soon enough our leaders would see that we demand respectful debate and action on issues that includes compromise. I believe that we should all be free to be you and me and still be respectful. That’s my idea of free speech. We don’t see enough of it these days. Perhaps we need to insist that more of our leaders learn the art of instructive debate and we the people would also do well to do so.