As many of you do, I’ve spent a great deal of time on The Smokey Wire in the last ten years. I’ve found it difficult to explain why I should feel such an admittedly peculiar calling. Frederick Buechner once said “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” People are willing to accept that it gives me deep gladness, but I’ve had trouble articulating what utility TSW brings, or might bring, to the world.
I did learn to love a good argument and to embrace that opportunity without an ounce of dread; that part is certainly true. But this change in attitude has left me with more time and energy to devote to worrying: about drought and fires in the American West; hurricanes on the Gulf Coast; the grim rates of unemployment and the failure of small businesses; the many obstacles lying in the path of the creation and deployment of a Covid-19 vaccination; and the terrible polarization of the United States.
In an odd twist, it is exactly that accelerated commitment to worrying that gave rise to the wild dream that drives this essay, namely:
If I could persuade some percentage of my fellow citizens to share my enthusiasm for good arguments, the polarization would drop in intensity, and we might be able to get somewhere in dealing with all those other worrisome problems.
OK, let’s put that wild dream aside for the moment, and return to reality.
This nation’s capacity to engage in good arguments has reached the vanishing point. In the all-too-near future, the nation’s sorriest ritual—that miserable performance called “a presidential debate”—will provide unmistakable evidence to support that assessment. As millions of Americans have arrived at the conclusion that arguing is inevitably sterile and pointless, we are left with only shouting matches, blame fests, fruitless data disputes, or embittered silence. This is the bedrock problem that deepens and enhances every other dilemma we face.
Over the last years, pundits of various stripes have gone into over-production of a certain form of pep talk. In an endless loop, these people keep telling us that, to do our part to redeem our polarized society, we must take every opportunity to listen to those with whom we disagree.
Once you have listened, what can you do?
You can write a commentary of your own, telling other people they should listen, particularly to you.
The commentators telling us to devote ourselves to listening have come to resemble a sad group of recipe-writers, who have convinced themselves that the act of writing a recipe begins and ends with instructions to go out and acquire some ingredients. After the command, “acquire groceries,” these aspiring kitchen gurus skip the part of telling us what to do with the ingredients we have assembled.
To depart from analogy and opt for directness: today’s exhortations to listen go nowhere and still take a long time to reach that destination.
Here’s a better alternative.
By all means, listen. But once you have listened, and once you have reached an understanding of the ideas that other people hold and why they hold them, then invite those folks to join you in a good argument.
We should listen so that we will have all the ingredients we will need to win arguments in the only sense that matters: emerging from the exchange smarter and better oriented to life.
One way to get the right take on winning and losing arguments is to repurpose and redeem that platitude, “We will have to agree to disagree.” Understood as a passive submission to the recognition that two people are not of one mind, this unfortunate platitude has lumbered through life with the wrong meaning.
Set free from this sad message of defeat, and inevitability, those words get a new lease on life. “We will have to agree to disagree, and so we are off on adventure! We will put everything we have into taking part in a good argument, and the friendship between us will not only endure, it will gain in strength.”
I think the whole essay is worth reading. She has a concern about academia as a place for argument, which I share, based on my own experiences. If any of you currently in academia have programs to encourage and improve arguments, please post in the comments below.
You may also be interested in the Center of the American West discussions at “Lunch with Limerick,” as well as others of her “Not My First Rodeo” blog posts.