In years past, I would occasionally tune into The McLaughlin Group on PBS. The show featured John McLaughlin and four fellow-journalists, two of whom were politically liberal and two who were politically conservative. McLaughlin sat in the center, tossing questions to the panel like a skipper throwing chum to bait sharks.
Then the battle would begin, panelists interrupting each other, voices growing louder and more belligerent. McLaughlin himself would frequently bark, “You’re wrong,” at a panelist with whom he disagreed, assuming that his own reasoning was incontrovertible and his conclusions self-evident.
More than once, my wife asked me, “Why do you watch this? All they do is yell at each other.” Channeling John McLaughlin, I bluntly disagreed. But she had a point.
In my own experience, nothing has ever been settled and no one convinced because I raised my voice. Facts are good. Arguments are not. Arguments spawn arguers, not answers.
If that is so, our nation is in a bad place because nearly everyone is raising their voice. We are the most argumentative people in generations. We now have technological pillboxes from which we, unseen, can send a volley of argumentation at our opponents while remaining shielded from their counterarguments. At the same time, there are fewer listening posts than ever before—and most of those we do have are abandoned. We simply never have to hear what our opponents are saying.
Contrast that with the Emperor Antonius, adoptive father to the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was said not only to tolerate frank opposition, but to be “pleased if somebody could point to a better course of action.” Such openness to reason has always been uncommon. In today’s climate, it is astonishing.
My wise attorney friend John Lewis recently shared with me a warning a theology professor once gave his class: It is rare for someone to change their minds about any theological position for which they have argued. What is true in theology is true in any discipline, whether economics, politics, or nutritional studies.
Something happens to us psychologically whenever we argue for a position. A switch is thrown, as it were, which closes the door on new information. It is not merely that we can no longer cross over to the other side; we can’t even adjust our position on our own side. The switch that closed the door has locked us into place.
This is why we should be careful not to argue. Should we find that we cannot do otherwise, we must at least put ourselves in a place where we are forced to listen to our opponents’ arguments and understand their positions. The proverb is right: “The one who gives an answer before he listens—that is his folly and his shame.” It is also a sign of intellectual cowardice.
This is not to say we should not have convictions – far from it. And we can, and sometimes should, make those convictions known. But we don’t need to argue to do so. We need to clearly articulate our positions and explain our reasons for holding them. Society needs more than reasoned arguments. It needs reasonable people.
I write this as a recovering – and sometimes lapsing – debater. What vodka is to an alcoholic, a good debate is to me, though debates are a stimulant, not a depressant. They wake me up, get me going, give me energy. They don’t dull my senses; they sharpen them. Unfortunately, they also sharpen my tongue. Arguments, like alcohol, can destroy relationships.
I’ve come to think that people are not talked into the truth. Occasionally, though, they can be listened into it. That never happens when we argue.
Because I am a recovering debater, I taped a quote from the 19th century Scottish churchman Alexander Whyte on my pulpit desk: “Eschew controversy, my brethren, as you would eschew the entrance to hell itself! Let them have it their own way. Let them talk, let them write, let them correct you, let them traduce you. Let them judge and condemn you, let them slay you … You have not enough of the Divine nature in you to be a controversialist.”
I can’t argue with that.
(First published by Gannett.)