Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
He’s famous for leading Britain in the world’s most recent global war, among other things, and his comment came in 1954, after he had written his history of World War II, but presumably it recognizes the superiority of talking to physical fighting. More recently, the Dalai Lama, speaking of his nation’s occupation by the Chinese, expressed the idea that dialogue is the only way to solve human problems.
Not that dialogue has done anything to free Tibet, but he’s sticking to his verbal guns.
These statements do raise the question of whether discussion solves any problem. How often have we heard people insisting that we just need dialogue, that we just need to listen to each other? And yet, anyone who’s been in an argument with a family member or followed politics or engaged in a conversation on Twitter should know that talking so often doesn’t reach agreement or cooperation on matters that people hold deeply.
As regular readers of my weblogs know, I support both gun rights and gay rights. I also accept the science of evolution and climate change. These things make for some interesting discussions on Twitter in which I find myself supported by my fellow Twitterati on one subject, while being vehemently opposed by the same people in other areas. It’s fascinating to watch someone make what looks like a good argument one day, then turn around and make a sloppy one the next.
Of course, it’s harder to spot the logical and factual errors on a position we support, since we tend to be much less critical of ourselves and our allies, and when given the choice to go after errors, it’s more comfortable to attack an opponent, rather than a supporter. But of greater concern is the fact that so many people develop a conviction about a topic and then become impervious to facts and logic.
What are we to do about this? One answer that I’ve addressed before is a slow but steady solution: education. The more ideas and information people are exposed to, the more open–it is to be hoped–they are to considering a variety of positions in a logical manner. Note that this comes from what we call a liberal arts education. The liberal arts are aimed at teaching the skills and knowledge a person needs to be a free person, rather than focusing on some specific requirement for a particular job.
But as I said, education is a slow process, and even educated people get caught up in the passion of belief. This leaves us with the question of why we should bother to debate ideas at all. I offer three answers:
1. Not everyone is decided on every subject
We must remember that for every infuriating true believer out there, many more people will be undecided on the subject. Make a good argument, don’t take crap tossed at you, and trust to the potential goodness in all of us.
2. Support freedom of choice
These debates remain theoretical and intellectually interesting so long as we don’t rush off to pass laws. This is the reason that I call myself an eleutherian. Whenever possible, and it’s possible much more often than we’d like to believe, leave people free to act on their own beliefs while we act on our own.
3. Consider the argument being made
That means keeping this open:
and engaging this:
Those, naturally, are the hardest part.
Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.