The Lost Art Of Intelligent Debate


July 01, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

I LISTENED AS THE COLLEGE professor at the breakfast table began to hammer away on the subject of "political correctness" and how there really is no such movement at universities.

Then I listened as someone else at the table angrily interrupted, saying, oh, yes, indeed, there is such a movement and it is to universities today what the "brown shirts" were to Hitler in Nazi Germany.

From that point on, I am sorry to say, the conversation was all downhill. Neither person listened to anything the other was saying and when the breakfast ended, each was angrier and more firmly committed to the correctness of his position than before.

It made me wonder whatever happened to the art of debate, to our ability to disagree with one another in both an agreeable and informative manner.

And to listen with an open mind to another person's point of view.

Increasingly, ours is an age in which we believe with absolute certainty that our cause -- and no one else's -- is the just and correct one.

Long gone is the rigorous, nuanced debating style typified by such opponents as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the mid-19th century. What passes nowadays for debate boils down to something like this: You're either for something . . . or against something.

A "clash of absolutes" is the way Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe describes our polarized attitudes, attitudes based on the firm belief that God or Allah or the Constitution is on our side.

We see this clash in its most undiluted form when it comes to such emotionally charged social issues as abortion rights, animal rights, environmental issues and AIDS testing, to name a few. The middle ground -- a place which offers more room for gradations of opinion -- has largely disappeared, taking with it a common ground upon which some of us might find a place to stand.

In a recent address to the graduating class at Princeton, William Crowe Jr., retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised seniors to keep an open mind. "To be able to change your mind when the facts warrant it," Crowe told the class, "is the hallmark of an educated person."

You might say it is also the hallmark of a person in search of, or in possession of, a mature approach to forming a personal and political self.

It has always been the accepted province of the young to search for things to love or to hate; to be for or against; and to argue one's feelings vehemently about everything. From pizza to Picasso to "Purple Rain."

In some ways this passionate stance, this shouting out of our beliefs as the one and only true belief is how we define ourselves as teen-agers and young adults. And how we define who is like us and who is not like us -- who is friend and who is adversary.

I remember all too clearly a time in high school when I considered it quite proper to shut out a classmate who refused to participate in a protest against the cafeteria food. I also remember writing off more than one college classmate as "weird" because of their taste not only in politics but in music.

Such are the judgments of youth.

But maturity, according to the experts, should teach us other, better, ways to define ourselves and what we choose to believe individually. And maturity, in theory at least, should also teach us that there are more responses to an issue than "for" or "against."

"Do not understand me too quickly," cautioned philosopher Andre Gide. It is advice given in another context but advice which has relevance in a social and political climate that seems to encourage automatic responses to major issues of the day.

Indeed, the concept of paying respectful attention to an opposing belief -- in the service of actually learning and understanding something about that belief -- may be an idea whose time has come. Again.

There is a sense of great change in the air as this country begins what looks like a bumpy ride into the 21st century. And because we are a nation with no common religion, no common ethnicity, no common race, it seems all the more important to find a common ground upon which to build a collective sense of community.

A small but important step in that direction may come if we can agree to disagree and to shout less but listen more.

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