OPINION: Can debate be saved?

Photo credit: Jacob Larson

I’m right and you’re wrong, and that, it seems, is all there is to it. Or, vice versa.

When, if I may ask, was the last time someone genuinely changed your mind about something? And I don’t mean where to eat or which movie to rent and make fun of, I mean in with politics or religion or some personal belief?

That’s something I’ve recently been trying to figure out myself, and it feels like a long time. Far too long of a time. I feel like lately, I’ve become more entrenched in my beliefs and I don’t know whether I should be comforted by that, or the opposite? So today, I thought we should talk about the state of modern debate and discourse in the political realm.

In its June 12, 2014 article titled, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” the Pew Research Center revealed the growing ideological divide between the two major parties of Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades, and cites increased partisan animosity between them as well. Though shrinking, yes, most Americans still are quite moderate.

The article, however, details that, “many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”

The New York Times followed up on this study in its June 12, 2014 article, “Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics,” which talked about this divide seeping into our everyday lives:

“The survey shows that liberals and conservatives have self-segregating preferences, with many explicitly preferring to live around people with similar political views, and others expressing preferences that indirectly lead them toward communities dominated by their fellow partisans.”

This development certainly makes our societal discourse more … let’s say, energetic … but seemingly no longer that productive. Congress is a fairly straight-forward example. While one could argue that this is a natural cycle for politics – that it swings from highly partisan to more moderate between decades – there is another factor to our discourse we must consider: the conversation online.

Surely by now we’ve all experienced the current state of debate online, and can agree that it’s not a pretty sight. In its Oct. 2, 2012 article, “Why We Are So Rude Online,” the Wall Street Journal details why online discourse is the way that it is, including that “anonymity is a powerful force. Hiding behind a fake screen name makes us feel invincible, as well as invisible.”

The extreme vitriol that exists online, as well as the relative anonymity, is why it is so easy to dismiss any article you might come across that challenges your beliefs. I find myself doing it all the time. It’s possible that I’m, in fact, missing out on a thought I had never had before. A thought that might change my own thinking on a subject, because I don’t know if it came from a reasoned source, so I can far too easily just ignore it.

So, what can we do about this pitiful current state of discourse in our country and on our computers? Well, first, it’s probably important to not (as the Times put it), “self-segregate” ourselves. That means that we should still keep opposing views in our timelines, and our feeds and our lives. If for no other reason, it’ll help you keep track of the ludicrous things they say that you can call them on in a debate.

Secondly, and anyone who knows me personally is going to roll their eyes at me saying this, but we have to learn how to enjoy arguing. Trust me, it makes your life so much better and if you can find a way to enjoy it more, you can get more out of it. A lot of that has to do with not taking everything so seriously and just (and you have to make yourself do this) appreciating another way of thinking.

Thirdly, and most importantly, is to seek out the facts for yourself. The easiest and best way to cut through all the political shouting that modern debate has become is to work not for a side, but for fact itself. A simple example might be adding non-partisan sites like Politico or Pew (a true sanctuary for facts, you will love it) to your news routine.

The writer-turned-debater Christopher Hitchens, no matter what you thought of him, had a great quote on the matter. He famously once said that, “I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.”

I firmly believe that modern debate can be saved, but through only one thing: before we sprint forward to challenge each other, let’s spend just a little bit more time first challenging ourselves.

Johnathan Grieg is a senior in anthropology.

Hi, I’m Jonathan. I graduate this December, majoring in Anthropology, with minors in Creative Writing and Political Science. After that … we’ll see. Maybe graduate school in environmental anthropology. Maybe I’ll finally pursue my old childhood dream of becoming an infomercial host. It’s up in the air. Some of my interests and hobbies include devout sports fanaticism, religious study, and composing country songs that serve to explain the unearthly amount of disdain I have for country music. My band’s called Catfish Hurricane, you should check us out. Well, actually, you shouldn’t. I love writing, which is how I accidentally stumbled into this job. This stumbling into good things is my plan for life in general.