In a previous post, I bewailed the general state of public discourse. I take this to be a very serious problem that often precludes us from hearing each other and from being able to move toward consensus and problem solving. Unfortunately, the “sound bite” nature of much of our dialog stands in the way of providing the subtle nuance to analysis that is, more often than not, required. Since, as a general rule, we engage in arguments in order to persuade folks to agree with particular positions, any steps that we take that preclude genuine engagement, while they might score cheap rhetorical points, are not likely to be move us toward solution. Many will tell you that logic is one of the most difficult courses in philosophy, but there are some straightforward guidelines that can help improve discussion. (Only a brief summary of each point is included below, go here for the full discussion.)
1. Disagreement with another person’s ideas is not a personal attack, nor is disagreeing with a president’s position “president bashing.’ We may often feel this way, especially if we identify ourselves very closely with our positions or the positions of those we support.
2. If a person holds some position on a subject, it follows necessarily that they think the opposite position is false. For a person to hold some position, say P, they must believe it to be true. So, any position that is the opposite of P, they must likewise take to be false.
3. Notwithstanding 2, a certain degree of humility is always appropriate. Most subjects are complex and the possibility of our own error is ever present.
4. For a person of faith to agree with either a progressive or conservative political agenda does not mean that the political/ideological agenda is determining their theology. We do not have to assume someone has put their politics ahead of their theology just because they come down differently that we.
5. Hardly anyone is either conservative on every point or progressive on every point. Positions, like persons, are pretty unique and tend to be more eclectic than pure partisanship would allow.
6. Just because someone uses the term “Christian” in their argument or even sprinkles a few biblical verses in them does not mean that the position that results is consistent with the Gospel.
7. All of us use terms like “left wing this” and “right wing that,” but we need to realize that these terms often confuse more than they illumine (see 5 above).
8. One clever, rhetorical tool often deployed in arguments is the rejection of a “strawman” argument. Say you argue that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria for a just war. An opponent using this means of argumentation might say, “Saddam is a really bad guy, how can you defend him?” Notice, you said nothing to defend Saddam.
9. The popularity of a position generally says nothing about the truth of the position.
10. Most topics are rather complex and cannot easily be reduced to sound bite argument or to simple syllogism. Most matters require careful analysis and recognition of subtle nuances if one is to come to the correct conclusion.
So, here that is my list of 10 ways to improve the quality of our public discourse. Of course, public discourse might not be quite so interesting and “spicy” if we followed this list, but we might get closer to genuine engagement. Again, join us here for more detail.