The possibility of rational debate and discussion in human affairs remains a stubborn and persistent ideal. This is, I suspect, mainly because we have a lot riding on it. Without the possibility of rational debate and discussion, it would be close to impossible to work in groups, and for the groups to be productive, to get stuff done. Deliberative processes would also be unworkable; and would in fact not exist. Parliaments and similar legislative assemblies – allegedly the great deliberative forums of liberal constitutional democracy – would not function without some attempt to promote rational debate and discussion. Democracy itself celebrates the ideal. The whole idea of a public sphere rests on the notion that citizens can meet in the virtual public square-- constituted today by the mass media system in each country– and exchange views on the great public issues of the day, from which process-informed public opinion might emerge, and so on.
Yet, the ideal of rational debate and discussion requires (a) certain personal disciplines, and these disciplines are not easy to practice; and (b) personality traits that are not evenly distributed within any population.
Dinner Table/ Beer Parlor/ Bar Room debates
I invite you to reflect on experiences that I am sure we have all had. You are with a group of friends/relations/colleagues, having a drink, shooting the breeze. Then a modestly contentious issue comes up. (Example: Is gay marriage okay? Why not civil unions?) Two self-selected lead debaters take up the issue, one on each side. Others join in. All too soon, you will notice a number of things. First, gradually the temperature rises. Second, voices begin to rise in pitch and intensity. Third, the point in controversy will gradually get lost, as the combatants --- for that’s what they are now --- jump from one issue to the other, so much so in fact that after a while nobody will remember what the original issue was. If you are not careful, matters will get personal, too. Finally, as the intense point and counter-point gets close to the deeply held values and beliefs of those involved in the ‘discussion’, explosions will happen:
“How dare you say that to me? How dare you? Who do you think you are, you moron?!!!”
Which is why in his famous work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie has this maxim: To Win an Argument is to Lose a Friend. Here is what he teaches:
Here is what I believe: If someone is important to you, be extremely careful about debating them, especially if you are good at dismantling faulty reasoning. That person might not speak to you ever again if you shake the pillars of their mental world. Sometimes the practice can have tragic consequences. For instance, I saw a brilliant European art house movie the other day in which an atheist drove his wife – who really loved him – to suicide by relentlessly and remorselessly attacking her faith. See: The Broken Circle Breakdown.
Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save face? He didn't ask for your opinion. He didn't want it. Why argue with him? You can't win an argument, because if you lose, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior, you hurt his pride, insult his intelligence, his judgment, and his self-respect, and he'll resent your triumph. That will make him strike back, but it will never make him want to change his mind. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
There are two groups of people prone to this. The first, are those Jungian psychologists describe as Thinking Types (versus Feeling Types). Thinking types love structures, systems, patterns; deploy logical analysis; can be cold and unemotional in reasoning and the implications of their reasoning. These are some of the differences that Myers-Briggs tests (and the Big Five Personality Dimensions) reveal. But there is a second group often fanatically devoted to the ideal of rational debate and discussion. They are people who have received high level training in logic and critical reasoning. I know about the commitment to rigorous reasoning in law and philosophy. I know what my training in law, jurisprudence and political philosophy has done to me, and how much trouble I have gotten into in those dinner table ‘debates’. Now, I do my best to bite my tongue and keep quiet more often than not. Even if I join the debate, once someone starts getting ‘hot’ I shut up.
The riot of passions impeding rational debate and discussion happens on a grander scale as well. Notice how often legislative assemblies around the world yield to acrimony, and those ludicrous fist fights in these places that global television networks love to show us. Also notice how often political debates on television are nothing but shout-fests. Notice, above all, how many newspaper pundits around the world are masters of elegant nonsense masquerading as analysis. One can go on…
Still, can we afford to give up on the possibility of rational debate and discussion? I suppose that is why if, for instance, you want a meeting to be productive these days you need to find yourself one of those expensive ‘facilitators’. You need, it seems, someone who is paid to be the adult in the room.
Photograph by Simone D. McCourtie via World Bank Photo Collection, available here
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