I grew up arguing. With my father, my teachers, with ministers and friends. I had strong opinions. I would express them forcefully. You might find it hard to believe but I could be quite vociferous. Occasionally, these arguments would degenerate into fights. My mother would worry.

Gradually, I realized that the fights started not when my opinions disagreed with others (though it sometimes seemed so on the surface) but when one or the other of us lacked the facts or the rhetorical skills to effectively present our case. When the rules of debate degenerated into ad hominem name calling, references to a (false) authority and all those other flourishes of verbal jousting you rely on when your argument don’t hold up to scrutiny.

These days we are encouraged to avoid arguments. At work, we try to find a peaceful consensus that is respectful of other people’s views, even when they are unsubstantiated. Even when they are wrong. Sometimes, one cannot resist proving one’s opponent wrong. But instead of fighting back — marshaling their facts and skewering your presentations — a lot of people seem to sulk.

You might win the argument but you almost certainly will lose the popularity contest.

Meanwhile, on social media, people hesitate to put forward strong and controversial opinions. It almost always leads to dueling posts — the on-line version of reference to authority — or more likely to flame wars where your integrity or intelligence is called into question (or, more hideously, your safety is threatened). It happens to everyone though I’ve noticed that white straight males are less likely to be slapped down than everyone else. The on-line world has become the haven on anonymous hatred and disrespect.

More disastrously it has become the land of unreason.

Because argumentation — or rather debate — is at the very foundation of reason. Through language we gradually carve away at untruth and weak thinking. We slowly put aside our evolutionarily honed instincts and replace them with meaning constructed out of goals and purposes that extend beyond our simple needs for food, shelter, sex and status. Through argument, we build civilization.

How do we restore the forum as a place for public debate, where different viewpoints can be represented forcibly, backed by evidence and where we might actually come to an agreement on the big social, political, environmental and economic issues facing the world? Can it be done? And, if so, how? Certainly not by relying on faceless algorithms that encourage us only to hear what we ‘like’ and talk to those who belong to the same choir.

And it certainly won’t come about when we allow money and narrow interests to dominate our political institutions.

It’s a task worth pursuing. But I certainly can’t do it alone. Anyone want to argue with that?

And that’s ten minutes.


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