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  • Writer's pictureJeremiah Brown

A better kind of debate

That’s just how I feel.

When someone says it, I feel inclined to do one of two things. The first is to get up and walk away before I punch someone for not using their brain. The second is to actually engage with them, to ask them why they feel that way. For some things it doesn’t matter why someone feels the way they do. I don’t care if you like the colour green more than blue. But for other things, especially for things that have significant political implications, just feeling a particular way is not good enough. It’s not good enough because some political issues can define peoples lives. It’s not good enough, because people deserve to be treated with respect. Just feeling one way about marriage equality is not good enough. Knowing why you feel that way is equally important.

You don’t deserve to have an uninformed opinion about a given issue. It’s fine if you feel like you don’t know enough about something to have a stance on it. But to take up a position without getting properly informed, without knowing why you have that position, is hugely problematic. Then, to equate your stance with that of someone who has actually thought about it is even worse.

Letting someone else form your opinion for you is just as bad. Because the bible says so isn’t an answer. Because a professor says so isn’t an answer. Because my friend told me so isn’t an answer. Do you know how much thought that they have put into the issue? Do you know why they think that it is the case? Accepting what you are told by some form of higher authority doesn’t actually answer why you should think it. It’s just saying that you do. Just believing something isn’t enough to decide how other people should live their life, and in the domain of politics, how you “feel” about things helps to determine how other people get to live their life.

Of course there is a difference between yelling in someone’s face until they agree with you, and actually convincing someone to agree with you. Sometimes you want to do the former. It makes you feel better to embrace the armour of self-righteousness and behave belligerently, but it rarely ever gets you anywhere. The latter is much harder. Engaging with someone and convincing them that you are correct is a longer process. It requires a degree of respect for people that often you might not feel that they deserve. It requires a willingness to answer why the other person is wrong. Sometimes you feel that it is so self-evident that they are wrong that you don’t know where to begin. But anyone who has had someone just talk over the top of them understands how a lack of respect spells the death of healthy conversation, and a healthy debate.

The starting point is being able to have a dialogue. That means being willing to listen to what someone else has to say. Too many people think you have to be stupid to believe anything other than what they believe. There are reasonable Republicans and Democrats who have thought out their positions. Too often hearing that someone thinks differently is equated with the notion that they don’t think. My personal preference is for a higher taxation system that provides robust support for its citizens, but I don’t think that people who believe in small government are all idiots – although some people who do think so certainly are, just as some people who believe in high tax welfare states are. If I can sit there and have a conversation with you about your perspective, and my perspective, I am much more able to influence you than if I just call you names.

Of course, there are some positions that are so deplorable that they should not be engaged with. Nazism doesn’t deserve a seat at the table. It’s just wrong. It doesn’t regard all people as deserving a degree of human dignity. It can’t be reasoned with, and it is foolish to try and do so. But these kinds of positions are outliers. Most people can be reasoned with. You just have to ask them why they think what they do.

I like being right. Most people I have encountered like being right. But you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to believe what I believe. But you do need to have a good reason for believing in what you do. Disagreeing with me doesn’t make you a bad person, not having thought about what you believe does.

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