Why aren’t we arguing about the right things?
In a country where our founding myths valorize debate, protest, and compromise, we seem to ironically find ourselves paralyzed by the way we argue- on every level of society. At the federal level we have seen the most inactive, intransigent legislature in our history; we can blame the filibuster or the two-party system or cable news or any other external factor, but the uncomfortable truth is that congress has had similar obstacles and conditions for much of its existence; it is the intractable nature of their discourse that has reached new levels of dysfunction before our very eyes. Debate in either chamber has become a performance, a ritualistic nod to party/group identity wrapped up in an attempt at 15 minutes of viral fame.
On cable news and in social media, this is the standard model to an even greater degree; the virtual world is a theater of human beings talking past each other from the safety of their own fortified positions, lobbing hand grenades where we once built bridges. In an era where views and clicks drive commerce, we seem to have tacitly agreed that destruction is more entertaining than construction. I mean, it’s quite true- I relish in witty or catty criticism as much as anyone- but there must be a different approach when we want to actually accomplish anything. It’s one thing to seek the comfort of a ideological home; it’s another thing entirely to retreat into the dark recesses of that home and shut out all other signs from the world outside.
It is understandably difficult to admit fallibility, to open ourselves up to criticism.
To acknowledge doubt.
Without doubt, human beings never would have evolved and advanced through the ages. Doubt has given us better security, regulations that make our daily lives safer, a clearer understanding of our place in history, the largest civilizations on earth. Doubt makes compromise possible, and without compromise the United States of America would never have developed into a powerful nation. While our process has never been elegant or timely, we have been able to preserve a special kind of societal fabric; change not through executive fiat or hegemonic dominance, but through messy human interaction. Rigorous debate and contemplation have more often than not been our hallmarks; though we are certainly not above violence to achieve our means, there are more examples of civilized resolution than physical struggle. What’s more, I think we could argue that our civilized solutions have been more successful than our violent solutions.
We have a rosy, comforting view of the great civil war; we like to boast about our status as one of the only countries in the history of the world to fight a war to free a subset of human beings from slavery, and we even view many confederate generals as folkloric heroes full of honor. What’s not typically mentioned is the fact that we were one of the last nations to abolish slavery, and no other country had to spend years of war and hundreds of thousands of lives to accomplish what most others did without any major bloodshed. The United Kingdom abolished the slave trade through legislation in 1807, with further action against smuggling in 1811, and then they fully abolished all slavery in the empire in 1833. None of these acts required warfare- they were the product of free debate. I don’t know why we Americans feel we deserve extra credit for waiting 30 more years + 618,000 more casualties to arrive at the same conclusion, but that’s what we teach. And what was the reward for former slaves when the United States accomplished this heroic act of abolition? Another century of repression and violence.
The civil war is probably too obvious an example to use, as it involved myriad influences and factors unique to the American experience- but so too did every other country have a complicated history and intricate societal structures to navigate; they just navigated without mass bloodshed. They did not remain prisoners to the labels and traditions of their history; they applied universal principles to modern issues, discarded inherited values which no longer applied, and found a revolutionary yet broadly acceptable path forward.
We, on the other hand, seem to still fight many of the same battles we did back then.
We debate based on labels established by our ancestors in societies far different from ours. These labels limit the parameters of our debate and artificially shift our positions to mask what the true middle ground should be. We end up in the same ritualistic performance as our ancestors, kabuki theater that plays well in media yet does nothing to address reality. Instead of using the experts or sages of the past as stepping stones in the evolution of ideas, we tend to treat them with uncritical reverence. Their words become scripture, timeless- rather than a prescription for their particular society in their particular time, equally informed by their own history and novel intuition.
Our extensive collection of records and philosophies at the moment is unparalleled in human history. It is of great benefit, yet also somehow a curse at the same time. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before- and a predilection to focus on only one small slice of reality. Both perspectives are essential: the experiential truth of a narrow slice, and how that slice relates to the full circle. Without the other, neither is complete in and of itself. To put it another way- the forest and the tree both depend on each other, and are therefore necessary. Ideally, we wouldn’t miss the forest for the trees or the individual trees for the forest.
Which is why it is ridiculous to treat any exchange of ideas as a winner-take-all battle, or treat any other perspective as wholly untrue. When trees are left to their natural processes, they work together to share resources and spread organically into a forest; they accept the addition of incredibly diverse organisms to perpetuate and grow this community further. There is strife, competition and death- but it all serves the ecosystem. The common good. When a harmful invasive species enters, individual trees communicate the threat to each other across an entire network to activate adaptation- and save the forest. No single tree dominates the forest; no single perspective rules the others. Through their diversity they find strength.
We all too often forget this natural maxim, lost in our own personal drama as we clutch tightly all that we were taught to believe.
A practical example from contemporary discourse: Police reform.
If we get away from the provocative labels and pre-established narratives to talk about what we all essentially want out of a police force, we could find great common ground. We would all say that we want to feel safe and secure walking our streets or in our own homes; we want crimes to be pursued and solved at a near-perfect rate; we want for no person with a badge to abuse that position in society; and we want police to treat us in a nonviolent manner, even if they suspect us of a crime. I think we would all also agree that we want our policemen and policewomen themselves to feel safe and secure when they execute their duties, duties to which they have been adequately trained and prepared. Right? If we are talking about ourselves and our relationship with the police, those seem to all be common-sense, consensus positions. This is how we should be treated, and how police should treat us.
But when we begin to talk about how we want police to treat others, we begin to disagree; when we find out how our party (or tribe) has decided to position itself, we begin to align ourselves with our group; and when we become completely beholden to one particular perspective, we slide into exclusive, often militaristic behavior. We adopt labels or messages that deny the validity of any other. Abolish the police is a catchy hashtag and contains a perspective that is true in some way- but it has to function in an ecosystem with the other truths it relates to. Likewise does an intransigent support for everything a police union may claim deny the truths of any perspective of one oppressed or violated by a police officer.
Argued honestly, we would have real discussions on how to stop treating every problem as a police problem- we would explore alternatives, perhaps separate entities to deal with mental health emergencies, or to handle minor traffic violations without the use of force, or to respond to domestic disputes. Should a beat cop really have to deal with all of those community issues, as well as prevention or investigation of violent crimes? Shouldn’t every cop have a bodycam on at all times, to protect the innocence of both parties? Can we really imagine situations where a cop needs to say or do something in complete privacy while they wear the uniform and execute the job we citizens pay them to- for the benefit of all? We should be discussing how the data is stored and secured from these body cams, not whether or not we each are entitled to a fair and honest relationship with our public security officials.
Your personal experience is valid, but it must be weighed equally with every other person’s experience. Outright denial of any other point-of-view is ultimately self-defeating, if we want to truly build a community security apparatus that protects every citizen the same way. It is self-defeating because we do not know our own future, or what societal status we may hold; the benefits we may experience now could be gone in an instant. The only consistent should be the rule of law, and how it applies to every citizen equally.
Societies in the West have developed on particularly Manichean principles over the past millennia; put practically, we in the West tend to see every dispute as a battle between good and evil, in which victory is to be realized with totality. The Romans can be blamed for a lot of this development; despite the democratic ideals we fondly remember them for, they became an empire through ruthless militarism. Their guiding principle was “Vae Victis”, or woe to the conquered: those who were defeated held no rights, no truth. It colors much of the development of society henceforth in Europe and beyond, and led to horrifying levels of violence and strife within nearly every institution and community. A disagreement over one small interpretation in a religious text could lead to decades of warfare and thousands of victims; Christians could label other Christians as absolutely evil, governments of diverse populations could single out specific groups for extreme persecution. Our politics were all too often tests of strength and not tests of truth.
Another path exists, though; we can learn from our past, and from other perspectives around the world. One of the most powerful symbols from the East is the ubiquitous yin-yang: it represents two opposing sides not as warring factions in pursuit of total dominance, but as two poles of the same holistic system. “Good” and “evil” are simply two opposite points, or perspectives, of one circle; their side is colored black or white, yet with a smaller circle of the other color present. Never does the circle go all black, or all white- even within the borders of each side. This broad region of the world has not been without its bouts of strife and selfish violence through the years, but there is a reason China and other eastern countries have a greater sense of continuity in their civilizations.
None of this is to dismiss the power of identity politics, or the richness of individual perspectives. But when we seek to enrich our particular group, or exclusively extol its virtues to society at large, we sabotage our own success as we deny the validity of our antithesis. If we insist on dominance, rather than cohesiveness. All too often I scroll through social media and see people who have staked out devils advocate positions without any regard to context; necessary positions, critical to a more complete understanding, yet completely dependent on the rest of the picture to fulfill their role. The greatest achievements in American society have been made possible only when all parties came to the table honestly in a bid to find common ground, a loose consensus influenced by multiple perspectives.
When we argued about the right things.
So this is what I would say- advice that I repeat to myself as often as I can in my daily interactions:
- When you find yourself in an argument, detach from your own emotional reaction and attempt to comprehensively listen to the other person- not to find points of weakness in their position, but to understand how they arrived at that position.
- On every position you find yourself adopting, find a valid counter-argument. Take a moment to argue against your own position.
- When you find an opinion or editorial that speaks to you, read into the context of that author- their background, the environmental factors that may influence their perspective, and how that does or does not align with your own.
- Don’t be afraid to admit doubt.
We can create a better society, a more equitable rule of law, and a free exchange of ideas- if we just decide to no longer be beholden to antiquated labels and exclusive tribes. If we recognize that we are a part of a whole, and not a crusading faction hellbent on victory. If we see both the forest and the trees.