In theory, everything changed last week when the seemingly trivial topic I talked about (the decision of online publications to remove comment sections) got dwarfed by the historic outrage that took place at the nation’s Capital. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that last week’s crime was an inevitable outcome of a problem underlying so many of today’s political pathologies: the loss, as individuals and as a society, of the ability to argue.
That may seem a strange diagnosis, given how much people with differing views of the world seem to do nothing but argue with one another these days. But keep in mind that the way I use the terms “argue,” “argument,” and “argumentation” in the context of everything taught on this site does not describe people shouting at each other (even if “arguments” in the way I use the term can sometimes involve heated language).
Rather, argumentation is a form of communication designed to get someone to change their mind, a means of persuasion that tries to get someone to believe what you want them to believe or to gets them to want to do what you want them to.
What we saw last week was a dramatic example of the opposite of argumentation since participants in the mob that ransacked the Capital could not care less about changing the minds of the people they tried to attack. Rather, they hoped to get others to bend to their will through violent coercion that required no change in beliefs on their victims’ part, only a willingness to comply out of terror.
Violence is the most blatant and dangerous way to get people to do what you want without persuading them of anything, but there are other methods to achieve the same goal such as blackmail (including emotional blackmail), threats of professional retribution or ruin, or personal or social shunning. While these latter forms of intimidation are less dramatic than attacks against democratic institutions, they are just as threatening to what that democracy stands for as is any form of the phrase “do what we say, or else.”
In previous posts, I talked about the contrast between an argument and a fight, with the former being a type of persuasive communication designed to achieve agreement and understanding (even if not always successful) and the latter being a way to get what you want without persuading anyone.
Over the last several decades, our political discourse has moved in the direction of fighting, rather than arguing, over politics and other important matters. Initially, the massive expansion of the Commons via the Internet and social media created more openings for people to engage in arguments about issues they cared about, which is why most online publications happily included that ability for readers to comment on articles I mentioned last time.
Recently, however, and with increasing acceleration, fighting started to crowd out argumentation in these new online Commons, with discussion threads about any topic in any forum rapidly “gravitating towards the meme” of accusation, threat and fallacy. At the same time, the sheer volume of news services and discussion platforms tailored for particular points of view allowed us to sit inside ideological bunkers, sharing tales of persecution with the like-minded with occasional forays into enemy territory to try to humiliate our foes. Is it any wonder such a system has left us vulnerable to manipulative trolls and bots, some of them under the control of hostile foreign powers?
So what can we do to tip the balance back to argumentation and away from fighting about everything?
To begin with, we need to have zero tolerance for political violence by any person or group over any issue for any reason. Anyone who tolerates or justifies violence in the name of a cause believed to be just should be treated as primarily fighting to tolerate and justify violence, not for the cause they claim to champion.
We also need to stop waiting for governments or Internet oligarchs to solve our discourse problems through legislation or clever algorithms that will outlaw or weed out nastiness (or lobbying those entities to ban those with whom we disagree). If we have political disagreements with others, we should debate them – ideally in person since it’s harder to dehumanize someone whose hand you just shook (once we’re allowed to shake hands again). And if we decide to take to the Internet or social media to air our concerns, we should do so with argumentation – the desire to persuade others – as our goal.
This means an end to shaming or false accusations designed to shut down debate. It means we need to listen to what others are arguing – even if we strongly disagree – rather than read into their words something that will push them beyond the pale. It might also mean returning social media to the realm of the social and finding other (ideally more personal and intimate) spaces to engage in genuine political argumentation.
If we want to avoid devolving into two mutually antagonistic nations, each with its own media and Internet feeding each population filtered or manufactured facts designed to stoke grievance and anger, we need to decide which of the following two questions we want to answer:
1. How do I reach the half of America that doesn’t think like I do?
2. How do I protect myself from the half of America that is dangerous and out to get me?
Question 2 is probably an easier one to embrace (especially if we couch it in noble-sounding language). But if we want to avoid catastrophe, perhaps we should put more energy into answering Question 1.