Friday, December 26, 2008

Civil Disagreement

"The worst offense that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men." -John Stuart Mill

I enjoy a good argument. I find it exhilarating to see how well I can defend a given position and how I can counter my opponent's attacks. This only works, however, if both sides acknowledge that the other person is well-meaning, intelligent, and informed enough for a fair fight.

It is too easy and too lazy to either demonize or marginalize one's opponent. Dividing the world into neat little boxes: "us" and "them" makes it unnecessary to base one's convictions on logic, evidence and reason. Near election time, I nearly stopped using facebook because I felt assaulted from both sides. Here are two terms I dislike, largely because they are used exclusively by one side to attack another based solely on difference of opinion or ideology: "religious right" and "liberal activitist." I have never heard a person whose faith guides a particular world-view refer to himself or herself as part of the "religious right," nor have I heard anyone claim to be a "liberal activist," although I have heard people explain how faith guides their view of the world, and one might claim to be a "gay-rights activist", an "environmental activist" or an activist on any number of specific causes that have traditionally been considered liberal. Beware of terms that attempt to define someone in a limiting and demeaning way. Here's a test: when you say the term defining your opponent, does your voice drip with condescension or contempt? Listen to how Bill Maher discusses the faithful or how Rush Limbaugh speaks of Obama if you need an example.

I find myself falling into this trap too often; when speaking with like-minded people, it is so easy to dismiss the other side, particulary on a strongly-felt issue, with such terms as "ridiculous", or "out-of-touch." The only valid term among these is perhaps "ignorant"--well-meaning is not always well-informed--but even then I cannot imagine a more likely way of alienating someone than by accusing them of ignorance and then proceeding to lecture them to bring them up to speed.

All of this reminds me of when people get annoyed with a co-worker or a roommate and then go complaining to someone else: I suspect that they do not actually want to solve the problem and eliminate the conflict, but that they prefer having something to complain about. If our convictions are more than just a convenient status symbol, if we want to convince others of the need to change their beliefs or voting patterns, why are we going about it in this way?

Which leaves me wondering: has all the voyeuristic drama of reality T.V. (where displaying artificially-created conflict renders something worth-watching) created a need for us to invent discord and find reasons to complain? Do we fear that civility equates to dullness?

1 comment:

Daniel said...

After working on the Hill I came to believe that politicians of both parties are generally well-meaning people. I don't think many people believe this, but it's true from my experience. (But I'm also not surprised by corruption when it happens--politicians do throw around a lot of money).

I definitely agree that it's too easy to agree with like-minded people. It may even be more important to be critical of like-minded arguments, just to make sure you get your arguments right.