08 August, 2011

The Decay of The Art of Argument

The problem with argument in this Post-American Century America is that no one likes a good argument anymore. We like to fight with words – admittedly, fewer and smaller words than we used to – but it is still considered the intellectual's preference to rocks, sticks, knives, or guns. We stake out our territory and strike out, like our tribal ancestors undoubtedly did, with the sole purpose of mental evisceration. I think of it like the Catholic Church's Crusades of centuries ago – convert or die. This is the approach that most of us take. But these two things are not the same.

Running parallel with that massive chunk of cultural sewage is another crucial piece of infrastructure that keeps the whole mess moving downhill – the dire and politically correct desire to be “polite.” These two things aren't nearly as contrary as people tend to think. Fighting with words accomplishes nothing and no one ever really wins... although everyone tends to walk away feeling like they have.

There are times in the often violent exchange of ideas when being polite is a nice break. A palette cleanser, if you will. Graciousness will take you pretty far in the world... if that happens to be your goal.

But even in a well-reasoned argument, there is often reason NOT to be polite. Conceit, snobbery, bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia can all be thinly disguised with a polite tone and a long knife smile. We talk a lot about compromise in this country... mostly about the lack of it... but the truth is no one really wants to compromise. They want to win while still being able to take umbrage at the fact that the other party didn't simply agree and capitulate.

This is the problem. We've lost the ability to argue in any way that useful, or even entertaining. We like to sit around with people who think like us, who talk like us. We join groups on Facebook so we can dish in publicly private setting. Now we have “circles” on Google + so we can control what we say and show to whom... even though it's possible to do that on Facebook if you spend five minutes looking over your account settings. And really, there's nothing wrong with getting together with other people – either in real time or online – to share similar views. (So that's NOT what I'm saying here, you ninnies who want to throw a Constitutional argument at me. I know all about the First Amendment. It's my bread and butter.) And because we've been taught to actually believe that the hallmark of civilization is our ability to be polite and that America is near the pinnacle of perfect civilizations, we think that the sometimes heated arguments over ideas are unamerican.

First of all, if history, current and past, has, is and should teach us anything, it's that there's very little about civilization that's very civilized. A smile and a polite tone does not make for an intelligent and enlightened individual. In my experience, the biggest, ugliest, stupidest bullies are the ones that smile. We have a history of exclusion and of fighting over who we ought to include: Non-Christians, Blacks, Women, the Irish, The Chinese, The Germans, The Japanese, The Gays, The Arabs, The Mexicans. I'm leaving some out, I know, but the list really is long. We've blacklisted artists, actors, directors, writers, comedians. (And I say WE because anything that's done in our name with our consent is something we bear the responsibility for.) We are nearly as cruel to other humans as we are to the other critters that scramble over the Earth... and the argument could be made that we're even more cruel to our own because we're more apt to take pity on a starving dog or a pitiful looking cat than we are to give a panhandler a buck. (And before you say “Yeah, the panhandler should get a job,” keep in mind that cats are natural scavengers and most dogs are intelligent pack animals. Making assumptions about why someone's homeless, or not working is simply the way we justify our lack of humanity. It's rooted in the idea stated thusly to me during a conversation once at a bar: “If I have to work everyday and hate my job, so does everyone else.” Yep. The If-It's-Good-Enough-For-Me fallacy. Mostly I think people resent the homeless and the unemployed because they know they're a paycheck away from being the same way. Similarity, in addition to making Facebook have a point, also breeds contempt.)

The other thing that history should teach us that for all of our accomplishments, Sweden is more stable democracy.

The overall result? We fight with words instead of argue. We've let the dumb bastards who are in charge – and who are always in charge regardless of what political party has the majority – convince us that arguing is rude and unamerican. Our alternative is that we fight with words... which is petty, pointless, and juvenile. The only real bonus is that it can be mildly entertaining for the first two minutes, or right before the commercial break.

I suspect that down deep, beyond the social programming and the institutionalized cultural miasma that is modern education, the real reason people don't like to argue anymore is because to really and truly argue requires not only the ability to think critically, but a moral and ethical integrity. It's important not to confuse argument with debate. We should never be a society of lawyers. Debate, sometimes referred to as Forensics, – like they sometimes still teach in public schools instead of real history or science – encourages people to learn all about something but be prepared to argue any position. There's no moral or ethical inquiry involved. The Greeks called this Sophistry and it was the Sophists who had Socrates killed. People like this mistake debate for the Art of Argument. The difference is Argument, if it is to be an art, must have some ethical and moral integrity. Art of any kind... painting, sculpture, writing, motorcycle maintenance … must have those same components. It's part – though not all – of what makes Art.

As a result of this curricular and cultural confusion, we've mistaken cleverness for wit, eloquence for intellectual and spiritual depth. We would rather let everyone feel like a winner than consider the possibility that some of our ideas are wrong. The truly critically minded folks out there often reconsider their positions on things. I know I do. And I do change my mind... though not because I'm ever really compelled by word fights that contradict my own experience. I change my mind because it's important to be open-minded.

But that's not the same thing as polite, either... though many do mistake them. Often.