The Lost Art of Argument: The Key to a Healthy Democracy

If this year’s election cycle proved anything, it showed that we are losing an important intellectual, social, and political tool: the necessary art of argument. I know that this might seem like a strange thing to say given how incredibly polarized our social and political landscape has become, but we find ourselves living in strange times in which words have come to take on even stranger meanings. If, however, we make a conscious effort to see beyond the fog of inflammatory language, buzzwords, knee-jerk reactions, and personal attacks that currently saturate our national discourse, we can see that most of these so-called “arguments” which take place are merely exercises in talking past one another.

This idea of “argument” has unfortunately become the primary method by which we reinforce our own preferred ideologies, traditions, or worldviews while simultaneously ignoring and shutting out the views of others. It has become the primary tool for building echo chambers which refuse to accommodate differing perspectives or find common ground. Rather than helping us to walk the difficult path to enlightenment, it has encouraged us to embrace our comfortable caves of ignorance.

Therefore, in the age of social media technology, we have ironically created an environment which is deeply antithetical to a healthy society and a healthy democracy – a world of anti-communication and anti-learning where everybody talks and nobody listens. In the words of Bertrand Russell, we are each becoming “one walled city at war with all the rest.”

While I realize that this failure to communicate is partly symptomatic of the larger problems of socio-economic inequality, race and class division, corporate media, as well as conflicting cultural values and political philosophies, I argue that these obstacles to healthy civil discourse are not as insurmountable as we have been led to believe. Rather, I think that our failure to engage in proper argument stems primarily from our ignorance of what argument is and of the goals it strives to achieve.

Before addressing the problem of why we should value argument, however, we first need to unlearn and dismantle the tribalistic, dogmatic, and egoistic definition of argument which has become our modus operandi for discourse. Only by doing this can we learn to see argument as it should be: as a dialogue between people in which information is shared in order to achieve a better understanding of an issue. This, of course, requires a few basic components: a willingness to listen to others, an openness to new ideas and perspectives, an an ability to think critically and objectively without rushing to judgement, and an ability to fairly represent and respond to what others have said in a civilized manner.

Therefore, when done correctly, argument is not an individual act, but a collaborative process. It is not a divisive or confrontational standoff, but an act of social and intellectual cooperation which depends on multiple viewpoints being freely expressed, heard, understood, analyzed, and evaluated within what John Stuart Mill calls the “marketplace of ideas.” In a true argument, differences of opinion are not only tolerated but welcomed because they allow for a richer, more meaningful, and more fruitful dialogue, and because they provide greater competition of ideas which allows the best ones to rise to the top.

True argument thus becomes an extension of the First Amendment, and of the democratic process as a whole. While not every opinion might not be equally informed or substantive, everyone’s right to be heard is equally respected. What’s more, after a careful consideration of what others have said, each person has the opportunity to verbally vote “yea” or “nay” on a particular issue, and to voice their reasoning openly.

However, just as a healthy democracy must avoid the tyranny of the majority, a good argument can’t just be valid because most people agree with it; this would be a fallacy. Rather, a good argument must be regulated by internal checks and balances in the form of things like logic, coherence, relevance, and utility. Therefore, if an idea is true or valuable, it will – more often than not – tend to win out against less true or less substantive ideas, provided that everyone values reason and critical thought.

For example, although idea that the moon is made of cheese has a right to be expressed and heard by everyone, because the idea can be logically and empirically refuted by a mountain of evidence to the contrary – assuming, of course, that the Cheese-Moon theorists are willing to change their views when presented with new evidence – this notion will likely not emerge victorious in the marketplace of ideas.

In this way, true argument acts as a kind of social science lab which repeatedly runs trial experiments so that we might continually re-evaluate, revise, and refine the way we think about ourselves and the world. Rather than allowing us to cling to rigid, preconceived notions, true argument necessarily forces us to update and clarify why we believe and act as we do, and to justify our beliefs and actions in light of new evidence.

Admittedly, making good arguments isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially when we really want to have the satisfaction of “winning,” or when want to avoid the shame of “losing.” However, I think that this is simply a wrong way to look at argument which speaks more to our tendencies toward tribalism and egotism rather than our intellect. For this very reason, good argument is something which requires a great deal of honesty and humility, as well as the courage to cast doubt on our dearly-held beliefs for the sake of bettering ourselves and others. Also, perhaps most importantly, it is something which requires constant practice.

Although we have all been guilty of falling into bad arguments at one point or another – especially when something really gets under our skin and we need an excuse to let off steam – this doesn’t mean we should necessarily indulge in them. Like fast food, bad arguments are often cathartic and easy to make, and while they might make us feel good about ourselves in the moment, they are simply not healthy in the long run. In truth, when we get into the habit of making bad arguments, we essentially choose to close off our minds to new information and selfishly pretend that we know everything there is to know about other people and the world around us.

By engaging in bad argument, we also pretend to live in a social vacuum where nobody else’s opinion matters but our own, and we begin look for information that inflates our ego, confirms our biases, and supports our preconceptions rather than seeking information which broadens our knowledge. Moreover, when we do this, we risk misrepresenting, hurting, angering, and ultimately isolating other people in the process, and therefore decrease the chances that others will take us seriously or respond to us in a civilized manner.

Assuming that we all accept this definition of argument, it seems almost absurd to argue why we should value what it can give us – namely, increased knowledge and understanding of ourselves, of others, and of the world around us. If we agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living; if we value seeing things for what they are rather than trusting the shadows of reality; and if we value an open and healthy democracy in which everyone can speak and be heard, then we should all embrace argument as one of the most patriotic of duties.

No matter how ridiculous, wrong, or repulsive an idea is, when we fail to hear the person who voices it, and when we fail to address them in a way that is understanding and respectful, the more divided our nation becomes, and the less power and legitimacy our own ideas possess. In a nation founded on liberty and free expression, the solution to our problems does not lie in censorship or isolation, but in conversation and education.

In my opinion, it therefore behooves all of us to constantly talk to, understand, and even befriend those people we disagree with – perhaps even those we disagree with most strongly – in order to establish a healthy environment where understanding and learning are made possible. Gandhi once said that, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” By metaphorically taking an ear for an ear, or a tongue for a tongue, I believe we produce a similar effect.

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