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A Lost Art: To Disagree
I wonder about the effect of our inability to argue in the modern age — not to quarrel, but to argue for or against a position. We find ourselves in a time when so very many disagreements happen on Twitter (X), where brevity and wit take primacy, and real debates rarely happen at all.
Taking part in a recent group discussion of a heresy from the 5th Century reminded me that one of the ways to best understand a position (including one’s own) is to explore an opposing viewpoint. It makes one aware of nuances and causes further clarity, as we discover—perhaps to our surprise—that our thought processes have been distorted or were incomplete.
Children are taught not to “fight” in the modern age, a stricture applied not only to physical conflict, but also verbal ones. Dinner tables oft forbid any discussion of politics or religion, as if we should aim to sacrifice truth to indifference, cowardice, or appeasement — in service of the masquerade of “keeping the peace”. Some households maintain this rule even away from the dinner table. Then they send their children to colleges, known to be environments hostile to conflict or disputation. When, then, is it acceptable for them to discuss, and thereby to learn?
“I never discuss anything else except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss.”
― G.K. Chesterton
I think we need a cultural shift among those families who are seeking a return of Christendom. We have a dearth of leaders. We have an abundance of young people who are horribly ignorant (a fault, at least in part, of the generation that raised them). We must educate and encourage learning, if only to know for what we are reaching.
When I was a young teen, I was already fascinated by politics, though my knowledge was admittedly crude. I spent time with other young people who were just as argumentative and impassioned as I was. With the goal of being able to “Beat the Reds” (communists), we would engage in mock arguments. One of us would pretend to be on the other side, and we would argue. We ‘fought’ hard, because even the kid playing the communist wanted to win. One of the benefits of this style of dueling is that it’s never taken personally — because the opponent doesn’t really believe that stuff.
Most people are so unfamiliar with argument that they tend to over-rely on slogans and catchphrases rather than fully-fledged positions. If someone makes the emotional plea, “Kids are dying in our schools because there are too many guns in America”, some respond emotionally: “Get your hands off my 2nd Amendment.” While the respondent is right that the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution defends the God-given right to bear arms, the two parties end up talking past each other. They’re not even talking about the same issue. One person is talking about dead children, and the other about rights. Thus, it might have been better to discuss why school shootings are rising, despite the fact that guns aren’t increasing, and gun access hasn’t gotten easier over the decades.
Most often, the protagonist is more interested in assertion rather than debate. He speaks to demand assent rather than to discover or confirm truth. When we know that about our interlocutor, when we see that true conversation isn't possible ("converso" means "to turn things over, to examine"), then we're inclined to become lazy and respond in kind. Consequently, any young, impressionable minds witnessing such an exchange take this dynamic as normal, or worse, they may take it as inevitable. What if we gave them a proper display of real debate? Wouldn't that be better for them?
They need to think more broadly, deeply, and rigorously than our current society encourages, permits, or enables. They need leaders who can help them to do so. In order to fight for a culture, we need to understand it. We cannot just assume that our young will feel their way to the truth, if we do not help them to use their reason.
While the most aggressive political arguments might only be heard at a political protest, it’s not uncommon for colleagues to occasionally mutter their concerns to each other. Can you calmly respond to a statement that you know to be false? Being able to clearly and calmly retort or explain one’s perspective is a sign of well-considered arguments. It takes practice, best done with a friend. Choose a topic that you and a friend care about, choose positions, pour a glass of wine if so inclined, and have fun. If you find yourself stumped to answer something competently, research what data you need for the future, and remember that your friend is your friend. One option in these scenarios is to pause the game and see if either of you can decide the best response.
If need be, this ‘debate’ can be done alone, as a thought exercise, in which a person contemplates a question, and the potential answers to it. It is better done with another, however, to best get a sense of saying things aloud to someone who will respond.
Almost every traditionalist will admit that we are in a lousy position because of an atrocious academic system that has been failing for at least decades, especially with regard to history, logic, and discourse. Thus, we must work to fix this failure. Arguing in the manner described herein is obviously not a complete fix for our problems, but it can be a key toward understanding the gaps in one’s own knowledge, filling some of them, and becoming competent enough to guide others toward a better future. There are resources that can help those who want to embrace this, such as the book, Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs, and the works at The Foundation for Critical Thinking. We all have obligations of self-betterment in service of God and fellow man, which cannot be fulfilled by merely screaming at one another in slogans.