We were younger than we thought. Fresh out of graduate or med schools. In our first big real-world work. Most Saturdays in those days, we met for breakfast at Horton’s (now a Chipotle) and lingered over coffee. Talking about life and how to solve the problems around us. We didn’t always agree, and sometimes we got loud and passionate…but never unkind. We loved each other after all. We also cared about the same things but often saw those very same things differently.
Each going our separate ways those Saturdays, we had learned from one another. Always coming away with a larger sense of what it takes to make a better world. We valued our debates, our arguments, as much as our happier takes on life. Civil and thoughtful – with space to disagree.
A few years later, we all relocated across the US, in next real-world jobs. I took a teaching post at Yale University. My first foray out of the South. There, I had the same experience as with our Saturday morning breakfast club. Lively debate on life, university regulations, student issues, course content, and the politics of the day. I was definitely an outlier on some of the topics, being one of the youngest on faculty and from a part of the country sometimes maligned for its thinking. Still, the grace and respectful interest given to me by my colleagues again gave room to grow…maybe for all of us as we wrestled together things that mattered. The experience of belonging also breathed consideration into our arguments. We shared commonalities. A tenure track respected no one over another.
Recently, a lawyer friend of mine, in Seattle, sent me the following article on this topic of argument or dissent:
What we are witnessing, in the rapidly transforming norms around race, sex, and gender, is not an argument at all but a revolution in moral sentiment. In all revolutions, the new thing struggling to be born makes use of the old system in order to overthrow it. At present, institutions like the university, the press, and the medical profession preserve the appearance of reason, empiricism, and argument while altering, through edict and coercion, the meaning of essential terms in the moral lexicon, like fairness, equality, friendship, and love. That the effort wins so much support speaks to the deep contradictions and corruption of American meritocratic institutions, and of the liberal individualist moral regime it seeks to replace.
Moral revolutions cannot tolerate ambiguity, but there is so much that I’m not sure of. How does one argue with this new form of truth? Not in the old way. Not by taking the bait. – Jacob Siegel
Siegel writes about the lost art of argument. His is a long and scholarly piece very worth the read. In brief, he states a strong case of how American culture, in particular, has become intolerant of reasoned debate. Pick the issue, and folks line up on one side or the other. If you are not on my side, then you are dead wrong. More than just wrong, you are a racist, sexist, fascist, Communist. And so it goes…far from the days of civil disagreement.
Photo Credit: Prezi, Christopher Lasch, Stephanie Rugo
I am still hopeful.
In the midst of all the meanness, especially in this election year, with political debates upon us, I believe we can turn this around.
Surely, we see the danger of hateful, polarizing exchanges. Part of our dilemma is that we are less face-to-face than we used to be. Before email and social media. Before COVID.
It’s too easy to use social media to make a public case on an issue and then dare someone to expose her biases and disagree.
I’m so thankful to have friends and family who allow for arguments on issues of religion, politics, etc. but without attacking.
The key to the art of argument is our persistent care for the person across from us. We may not love them, may not even like them, but we refuse to belittle or grow contempt for them. We refuse.
We determine to show respect, no matter how hot the argument becomes. We learn how to deescalate because the person matters more than the problem.
Scott Sauls speaks often on this matter of argument. His Tweet below expresses it better than I can.
People from the right and left calling me out for “political ambiguity.“ So here are my politics in a nutshell:
Attack problems not people…especially problems that attack people. Be unwilling to accept collateral damage that favors some and injures others.#WombToTomb
— Scott Sauls (@scottsauls) October 2, 2020
Twitter source: Scott Sauls
“Attack problems not people…especially problems that attack people.”
Although in the public arena we see too much ungracious confrontations, we can find exceptions. I’ve taken to watching Blogging Heads on YouTube. On split-screen, two people (often educators but others as well) tackle some of our most pressing societal issues. They have been immensely helpful to me. Equipping their listeners on how to problem-solve and see issues in ways we might not have before. Mentoring on how to have respectful, thoughtful discussions on topics they may or may not agree on…but they amicably agree to disagree.
I was honored to have a powerful discussion with the great @GlennLoury on upward mobility, entrepreneurship, education, faith, and a debate on how best to empower the black community to move from persecution to prosperity. https://t.co/9XY2lfk2wm @1776Unites @AEI @citizenstewart
— Ian Rowe (@IanVRowe) September 30, 2020
Twitter source: Ian V. Rowe
The art of argument (debate) doesn’t have to be lost. We can choose to weigh in on matters of extreme importance without taking the other person to the mat. Stating our reasoning without condescension. Listening, learning, allowing that we could be missing some part of the issue. Whether or not we get the same treatment, we both lose if at least one doesn’t remember the person in front of us has greater value than winning the the argument.
In closing, you’ll find two clips from Denzel Washington‘s 2007 film The Great Debaters. The plot is based on the true story of the rising debate team of the historically black Wiley College. The time was the 1930’s during the era of Jim Crow. The place, Texas. Washington played the role of Melvin Tolson, the outspoken debate coach. These two clips are riveting examples of an argument and a debate…and how it might be done again.
Thoughts? Please. In the comments below.