In high school I was a member of the debate team. For the overwhelming majority of my four years, we engaged in what was called “policy debate.” In this style, participants would argue about a particular resolution related to the government. Here’s one we actually used in high school: “Resolved: That the United States government should substantially change its foreign policy toward the People’s Republic of China.”
In policy debate, teams split into two sides. One-the affirmative–argues in favor of the resolution and provides a plan of implementation. The other–the negative–critiques the efforts of the affirmative in an attempt to derail/disprove their case.
Debate is a helpful exercise, and I believe the experience was good for me. One of the most important lessons it taught, however, is a sobering one. You see, each year our teams–affirmative and negative alike–were charged with proving our case using evidence. And evidence we had: magazine and newspaper clippings, sources from the then-young Internet, and published books of evidence to which we could refer. Lots of facts and lots of evidence, all of which could help us “prove” whatever we wanted.
It is a bit disconcerting to think that there are enough pieces of evidence out there that you could “prove” two opposite cases, but there we were. And so we argued as an academic exercise and used data like weapons to bludgeon our opponents. They in turn would use their evidence against us, and on and on it went.
What I learned in those days was, basically, that people can marshal enough “evidence” to their side so that they can prove whatever they want.
Please understand me on this point. I do believe in the existence of objective truth and that there are such things as right/wrong in our world. But I’m also keenly aware that facts/evidence/arguments can be made or arranged in multiple directions and be utilized in such a manner that they help “prove” or support myriad positions.
The same problem that we faced on the debate floor twenty years ago is faced by many Americans today. “Evidence” is plentiful and we use it with aplomb. Go on Facebook/Twitter. Read some partisan political blogs. Talk about a controversial issue with an opinionated family member. Odds are you’ll see a lot of “evidence” used in an effort to prove a case. And then, if you look to the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see other people knocking down that “evidence” in favor of their eminently reasonable or “fact-based” claims. And around and around we go.
For many, reposting links that agree with our already decided political positions is the name of the game. It feel good to be right. Right? If I’m a liberal/progressive, conservative Christians are out to destroy the country with their religious fascism. If I’m a conservative/traditionalist, then President Obama is the Devil (perhaps quite literally) and every negative aspect of our nation’s state of being can be attributed to the liberal agenda. Since I already know these things, the evidence I repost on Facebook mostly just buttresses my case and/or attacks the other side.
The problem with this type of social forum (and political debate) is that we end up in a closed circle. Many repostings and arguments of this type are not undertaken to bring clarity and sort through careful nuance, but to make ourselves feel better about what we already think. We’re not really in this business so that we can change our minds about a topic. If I believe conservative economic policy is the work of a cabal of the rich intent on keeping the little man down, of course I’ll post and argue about that. But if I read evidence to the contrary I might not post that. It makes me looks weak, and messes up my narrative. The same goes for those on the other side. And then when outsiders get involved, what passes for conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and the many comment forums of our time can often devolve into unhelpful name-calling contests.
As we approach the election of 2016, I’m saddened to think that we may have reached a point where we only want to a) talk with ourselves and b) stick our fingers in the eyes of the perceived opposition. That we only want to hear our triumphal opinions. That we’re convinced that the other side is so wrong that we’re not willing to work through things. This is not a search for truth. It is lazy, and it is pride. As the authors of a textbook I’ve used write: “Pride does not listen. It knows.”
We have a lot of people in our country who just “know.” In so doing, they’ve put themselves in a place where they are unable to change, incapable of really listening, and–in truth–unhelpful as we move forward as a nation. Is this then, how democracy dies? Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but in the silence or shouting of people and groups that simply refuse to engage in conversation with humility, openness, and thoughtfulness? After all, if we can find facts to agree with anything we want, why do we need to listen to anyone who thinks differently?
May we find a way out of this mess, friends.