As I keep telling my brother … if you shoot the messenger, all you get is less mail.
-Death of the Endless, Lucifer.
One of the few teachers I actually liked at school was fond of debate. He thought, in all honesty, that debate was key to truly understanding something. His idea of a mental exercise for our young minds was to put us in a position where we had to argue for or against something, regardless of our feelings on the matter. He was very good at guessing where we would stand and forcing us to argue the other side.
He taught empathy in a manner that actually stuck (unlike pointless appeals to better nature or idealism). He expected us to actually uphold ‘our’ side of the debate and marked us down when we tried to lose (because we didn’t want to ‘win.’) We came to understand that a person and their arguments were not always the same thing. Someone could and did argue for (or against) something that they found horrific, without actually compromising themselves. It was, in many ways, a useful education – a person who disagrees with you, or appears to disagree with you, isn’t always a villain.
It was, in some ways, excellent training for writing. I try to understand how the other side thinks – I try to explain their reasoning – without actually condemning them as either Ron the Death Eaters or Draco in Leather Pants. I try to understand where they are coming from without actually making excuses for them. A man like Karl Holliston of Storm Front, a committed Nazi in the truest possible sense, didn’t decide to be evil one day. He’s the product of a chain of events that, in no way, excuses the crimes he committed in the hopes of preserving the Reich.
In hindsight, the thing that struck me as genuinely brilliant was how skilfully he moderated the debates. We were not allowed to insult the other side; we were not allowed to shout and rage and generally act like assholes. We each had a set period of time in which to speak, then a chance to ask questions. We were expected to put arguments together, which would then be deconstructed and either destroyed or made stronger. I’m sure he had opinions of his own – I’m sure he did – but he never showed favouritism. We were graded on how well we argued our case.
This did not, of course, provide good training for debates on the internet.
I had the impression, as I moved onto the internet, that debates online were very similar to the ones I’d had at school. Yes, I was naive. I came to respect a couple of internet moderators – one of whom was quite well accomplished in the field we shared – and it took me some time to realise that they not only weren’t on my side (which wasn’t something they had to be), but they weren’t interested in actually serving as neutral arbiters.
What I hadn’t realised, at first, was just how badly the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour frayed on the internet. Internet trolls struck from the shadows, with moderators turning a blind eye (as long as the trolls were on the same side.) The rules were only enforced against people the moderators didn’t like or didn’t agree with, seemingly devised to turn the internet forums into echo chambers.
I had thought in terms of point, counterpoint and counter-counterpoint. They thought in terms of crushing the enemy. I had thought that debate was to be focused on the issue at hand. They thought that personal attacks were perfectly acceptable ways of winning an argument. I thought that patiently dismantling arguments was enough to point out that the argument was wrong. They thought that screaming, shouting and wild accusations (including blatant lies, misrepresentations, etc) was key.
Like most sensible people, I do not consider my opinions to be unchangeable. If someone comes to me with a logical argument that disproves something I had believed, I change my opinions. And the reason I do this is simple – if I am wrong, then there is nothing to be gained from continuing to uphold a wrong opinion. But, by contrast, if someone comes to me and insists – without putting forward any evidence – that I believe something because I am a horrible person, I’m just going to ignore him.
If you can’t put forward a coherent argument that proves someone wrong … are they wrong?
If this had stayed on the internet, it might not be a problem. But this attitude – the cultish belief that anyone who disagrees has to be driven out – is spreading into the real world.
I’ve seen too much of this over the last few months. People are being given grief – online and offline – for daring to try to understand the other side, often without actually supporting the other side. People have been unfriended, frozen out, even fired … just for daring to express the wrong opinion. Maybe the stories are exaggerated … it doesn’t matter. People tend to remember bad experiences – and things that make them feel bad – more than they remember good things. People who feel they are under attack either knuckle under, which makes them hate themselves and their oppressors, or clench their fists and start fighting back.
Everyone has the right to express an opinion. That’s freedom of speech. But they don’t have the right to have that opinion treated as revealed truth. If you want someone to take your opinions seriously, you have to convince them that your opinions deserve to be taken seriously. Sometimes, that’s a matter of having both qualifications and experience. At other times, it’s just a case of putting together a coherent and convincing argument.
And if I write an Op-Ed, you have the right to tell me I’m wrong.
And if you put together a coherent argument, I may even agree with you.
I make a point, these days, of trying to read opinions from all over the political spectrum. I don’t agree with everything I read – I really spend too long writing rebuttals in my head that never get written down – but I find it helps me to understand what the other side(s) is thinking. Reading their writings does not mean that I am committing treason or betraying my roots. Nor, for that matter, does acknowledging that the other side might have a point also mean that I have to accept their actions.
Years ago, I noted that the Right seemed to believe that even considering the enemy’s arguments might hold some validity was treason, while the Left appeared to believe that the enemy’s arguments (and justifications) had to be accepted without question. I wish things were that simple now.
I’d like to finish this short essay with a couple of observations.
First, over the past few months, I’ve read (and written) a lot of articles trying to explain why Hillary Clinton lost the general election. One theory that popped up sounded oddly plausible – Hillary didn’t change course because she thought she was winning. Assuming this is true, why would it be the case? Did it, perhaps, have something to do with her supporters not knowing a single Trump supporter? That Trump supporters feared that they would be punished for daring to say so openly? That, in the end, her campaign staff and richest supporters chose to believe their own propaganda instead of constantly checking and rechecking their premises?
If I could predict Trump’s win, why couldn’t Hillary Clinton?
The second point is, I think, a little more important. Unless you’re fighting the War on Straw, it isn’t actually that easy to convince someone to change their minds overnight, particularly when it goes against everything they believe. You might be right – objectively or subjectively – but it takes time for them to change. Slapping them down for daring to disagree does not help. Silencing them only convinces them that you are trying to hide the truth. Finding out why someone believes something, even if you know it to be wrong, is often more productive than shouting at them.
But this does, of course, require the patience to engage.
Pretend you’re in Hogwarts, standing next to Harry, Ron and Hermione. Draco comes along and starts shooting his mouth off about muggleborns being inferior to purebloods. In one universe, the Golden Trio hex him savagely and stamp off … and Draco declares, even as he bleeds, that they couldn’t actually counter his arguments …
… And he’s actually right. They didn’t win the argument. They only silenced him.
But what if, instead …
DRACO <sneers>: “Muggleborns are useless at magic.”
HARRY <reasoned tone>: “How come Hermione gets higher marks than you, pureblood?”
DRACO <sneers>: “The teachers all favour her, Potter.”
HARRY <dryly>: “Even Professor Snape?”
This is not an instant conversion. Of course it isn’t. Draco was raised to believe that purebloods were superior, so he’s very tempted to think that Hermione is being favoured by the teachers. But Snape is the one teacher who wouldn’t be tempted to favour a show-off know-it-all …
… And that is the first flaw in Draco’s argument. Given time, who knows? It might even change his mind.
But if you treat everyone who disagrees with you as an irredeemable enemy, you’re only going to close more and more minds.