Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who is it Worth Arguing With?

C.S. Lewis states in one of his books that the sound of people quarreling is negative. This is one of the few things I would agree with Lewis on, and I think it is because he uses the word "quarrel" rather than "argue". In modern society we often think of an argument as a negative thing, but it need not be. An argument is simply a position taken in which there is some logical consistency in constructing the position, and in which one is discussing this with someone of an opposing opinion. A quarrel, on the other hand, seems to me to be simply a yelling match in which both parties are too proud to ever admit they are wrong and, even worse, have made up their mind before beginning the discussion and therefore are completely unwilling to even comprehend the other person's point of view. I think it is very worthwhile seeking arguments and avoiding quarrels in life. But how to tell the difference?

I think the difference stems from different types of people, not from different circumstances. We are probably all capable of the momentary pride that leads to a quarrel, but I believe there are quarrelsome people who always seek out this form of negative and destructive conversation. I also believe it betrays an immature psyche full of insecurity. If one is a mature, secure, confident person, what has one to lose in listening to and understanding an opposing point of view? One can still choose to disagree. But not even allowing someone to explain their point of view, or worse deliberately misinterpreting their point of view for your own personal gain, has no value. Sadly, it is this latter approach that seems pervasive in modern society, particularly in places such as politics and in the debates surrounding religion.

The people that I think it is not even worth trying to debate or have a conversation with are those who are not interested in hearing another person's point of view. Examples of these types of people abound. The first person that jumps to mind is that crass Amercian TV personality Bill O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly is known for yelling "shut up" at the guests on his show. Even if he doesn't tell them to shut up when he disagrees with them, he certainly doesn't let them actually make their point. Never, ever does he hear someone out and then actually ask them to clarify their position so he might better understand. Perhaps O'Reilly's best example of an inability to even listen to an opposing point of view is his embarrassing interview of Jeremy Glick in which he eventually cuts the microphone and ends the interview, all because he can't stand hearing a position that "offends" him.

So, this video clip is an example of what I would call the first level of a quarrelsome person. Everyone knows Bill O'Reilly has a particularly quarrelsome approach to interviewing his guests. He never lets them finish and isn't interested in understanding their point of view. But, I would argue there is another, worse level of quarrelsome person, that person who not only isn't interested in hearing an opposing point of view, but who actively misinterprets their opponent. Two examples immediately jump to mind. As much as I find Bill O'Reilly quarrelsome and negative, two other TV personalities are much more so: Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter. Both of these people actively and deliberately twist what their opponents say to suit their needs. So in the end they aren't even disagreeing with what their opponent has said, they are in fact disagreeing with a perception fabricated within their own minds. As part of Al Gore's Inconenient Truth message, he famously told audiences that we have ten years left to change our destructive environmental practices before it will be too late to prevent catastrophic change to the atmosphere and the climate. Gore is not a scientist, and he may have grasped the ten years notion out of thin air. I don't think we really know the timelines of change that are needed in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. But, I would think that Mr. Gore's prediction of ten years is actually on the long side. I think most scientists would agree that it is already too late. Ten years is far too long to wait if we are going to prevent significant negative destruction of our atmosphere. We have already been emmitting unsustainable carbon dioxide levels for a couple of centuries. His "ten years" was, in my opinion, a way of demonstring the urgency of the situation to those who really have no idea of the science. If he had said: "It's already too late" then most people likely would have shrugged and figured there's nothing that can be done. So, while Gore's prediction is not particularly scientific, I do think it was made honestly and with the right intentions. Consider how Rush Limbaugh then dealt with that prediction. Since he denies climate change (and science in general), Limbaugh deliberately misinterpreted Gore's prediction and even made fun of it by constructing a countdown doomsday clock on his webpage. You can witness Rush Limbaugh's deliberate misinterpretation of his opponents every day by veiwing his webpage or listening to his radio show. Everything Barack Obama does is evil and ridiculous in Limbaugh's eyes. But, I can guarantee you that if the president called up Limbaugh and asked him to sit down and have an honest converstation so that they can understand one another better, Limbaugh would either reject him outright or turn that conversation into more negative fodder for his deliberate ignorance. There is no desire for argument, only for a quarrel. So, what is an example of a respectful argument that is not quarrelsome? I would offer the example of Richard Dawkins interviewing Bishop Harries. Here are two men of very opposing points of view. Dawkins is, of course, the world's most famous atheist, and Bishop Harries is, of course, a very religious man. Yet, they are able to have a civil conversation and discussion in which they each actively seek out to understand the others' point of view. There is no impatience and telling people to shut up. There is no deliberate misinterpretation, followed by a pronouncement of how silly the other person is based on a ficticious opinion.

Can't we have more of this sort of discourse in society? Can't politicians listen respectfully to their opponents and then decide whether they agree or not based on what is said, rather than disagreeing out of principle before the conversation even begins?

My philosophy is that it is a worthless exercise trying to have a conversation with the Bill O'Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of this world. They are not interested in actually hearing and comprehending other points of view. What they are intersted in is gathering fodder for their quarrel machine. Once I recognize that I'm in conversation with someone of this nature, the conversation ends. There is no point. It is a waste of time, and ultimately it all boils down to people, yet again, putting their conclusions before the evidence.

My last point is that it seems like the overwhelming majority of people who are not interested in hearing their opponents are modern conservatives. I have to admit that this quality is one of the things that drove me away from conservatism and more towards liberalism. Conservatives seem, to me, to be inherently unable to listen to opposing points of view. Is this because of some bias that I myself have, or is it because the messages of modern conservatism (that the free market is the only way to go, that any form of socialism is evil, that environmental sustainability is unecessary, that science is over-funded, that universal healthcare is a waste of money) are all wrong and conservatives who support these messages are insecure about getting into an actual evidence based debate about them? It is much easier to hold your position if you refuse to openly listen to your opponents. 

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