While at When Words Collide, I participated in a number of panels on a variety of subjects related to science fiction, the future, politics and the environment. The discussions were good. Panelists sometimes disagreed. We sometimes disagreed quite strongly. Knowing most of the participants, I know that those disagreements ran deep.
Yet, there was never an uncivil moment. No one sank to the level of personal recrimination. The ideas were debated, not the people who presented the ideas. Perhaps it was because, while we disagreed on some things, we were all able to find common ground on others. Maybe it was because most of the people involved were Canadians – too polite to be fierce – or that the atmosphere of the event was steeped in collegiality.
Or, more likely, it was because we were debating face to face or more often side by side. It is hard to be nasty when the person next to you could poke you in the nose. Still, I’ve seen debates in legislatures – even in Canada – devolve into fisticuffs. But other than Edward Willett falling off the podium during one exuberant statement, our discussions remained decidedly non-violent.
It’s not that writers can’t be rough-housers. But maybe, in the words of Jim Kirk, we simply decided not to rough house that day. Or just maybe, we are sick of people calling each other names when they happen to disagree about some political or social issue. The resort to threats is after all a symptom of a deeper sickness. For the second quote of my rant – violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Or maybe it’s the first.
In a democratic society, we do not impose our views on others by force – unless you are one of those who consider all mechanisms of the state, such as law and insistence on fair dealing, to be a form of coercion. Rather we debate – sometimes with great vigour and passion – and we try to persuade others of our views. Yes, we do rely on majority votes to make decisions but healthy states ensure that minority and individual rights are protected from the will of the majority by the strongest instruments we possess – constitutions and courts.
Without rational debate – and I am fully aware of the limits of reason as a tool – we can never solve the big problems. It is only through a collective process – mediated by language – that we can construct anything of significance, anything that lasts. Without it, every creation of individuals has no more meaning or permanence than a sand castle doomed to wash away at the next high tide.
But with ‘conversation’ (from the Middle English – ‘living among’) we can build the pyramids (okay, hardly a democratic example) or go to the moon. We can create big problems but we can then solve them all. It may be, after all, the thing that sets us apart, that makes us human.
But that’s ten minutes.