Rebecca Roache expressed a common feeling when in 2015 she blogged, “I am tired of reasoned debate about politics.” Many people today find arguments unpleasant and useless. That attitude is both sad and dangerous because we cannot solve our social problems together if we know that we disagree but do not understand why.
Luckily, arguments can help us accomplish a lot even in extreme cases. Consider the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who proudly held signs condemning gays and Jews to hell while she was a child in Westboro Baptist Church. Later, she found interlocutors on Twitter who displayed calm, concern, and curiosity while asking about her views. Their affability opened her to their views, but Phelps-Roper reports in her Ted talk, “As kind as my friends on Twitter were, if they had not actually made their arguments, it would have been so much harder for me to see the world in a different way.” She adds elsewhere that her new friends pointed out inconsistencies in her old views so clearly that she could not deny them. Reason and argument, thus, helped her to understand her opponents and herself and then to change her deeply-held religious beliefs.
The spread of bad arguments is undeniable but not inevitable.
Another example involved Ann Atwater, who was a leader of the civil rights movement in Durham, NC, and C. P. Ellis, who was Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. They could not have started further apart, but they became close friends. How? They began by asking questions, listening to each other, and giving reasons. Atwater fought to improve housing because she wanted her children to have better lives. Ellis opposed integration in public schools, but mainly because he wanted his children to get a good education. When each learned the other’s reasons, they could build on shared values, respect each other, and work together.
If these sworn enemies could become friends, so can Republicans and Democrats today. Admittedly, extremists often hide in their echo chambers and homogenous neighborhoods. They never listen to the other side. When they do venture out, the level of rhetoric on the internet is abysmal, abusive, and absurd. Trolls resort to slogans, name-calling, and jokes. Of course, much of this rhetoric is based on emotions and tribalism. When they do bother to give arguments, their arguments often simply justify what suits their feelings instead of their reasons. The spread of bad arguments is undeniable but not inevitable.
Rare but valuable examples like Atwater, Ellis, and Phelps-Roper show us how we can escape our cultural rut.
Reach out. Nothing would have happened if Phelps-Roper and her friends had not gone onto Twitter and looked for opponents. Similarly, all of us will remain polarized if we never leave our isolated cells.
Ask questions. If Atwater and Ellis had merely asserted their views and assumed that they already understood each other, then they never would have learned that they both cared about their children and were frustrated by their poverty. By asking the right questions in the right way, we can show opponents that we are curious and really want to understand them as individuals.
Be patient. Atwater and Ellis spent eight hours a day for ten days in a charrette before they finally came to understand and appreciate each other. Like them, we all need to slow down and fight the tendency to interrupt and retort with quick quips and slogans that demean opponents.
Give arguments. It is not enough to announce what we believe. We need to add why we believe it so that others can understand us and our basic values. On controversial issues, neither side is obvious enough to escape demands for evidence and reasons, which are presented in the form of arguments.
Demand sound reasoning. When people do not expect to be held accountable for their claims, they are less careful to base those claims on relevant facts and evidence. Then disagreements will be unjustified, antagonistic, and harder to resolve.
None of these steps are easy or quick, but resources are available to teach us how to appreciate and develop arguments. These skills will enable us to do our part to shrink the polarization that stunts our societies and our lives.
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