It is a dangerous environment today for the normal human interchange that we call debate. After a grueling and personally offensive campaign season, when both sides attacked one another without mercy, one is confronted each day in the news more and more with a continual battle of persons and ideals. So heated are the accusations that they sometimes erupt into violence.
As a Christian and a Priest, I look on in dismay, as our beloved country seems to be tearing itself apart. One hesitates to make any opinion known for fear that the other side will distort what you mean and make personal judgments against you.
Even in family gatherings, tensions can also rise between political and moral perspectives. I was recently at a dinner of long-time friends when the issues regarding the new administration began to be debated. Things got rather heated and the discussion was shelved in order to keep the peace.
However, if we lose the ability to talk civilly with one another, to discuss and, yes, even argue a point, we face a real loss. Are there rules we can follow that prevent us from descending into unchristian attacks and arrogant self-aggrandizements? I think the rich tradition of our Catholic Faith does give us some guidelines in these argumentative times.
The first rule is “thou shalt not demonize”. While anyone can be convinced of their own standing in the right, that does not allow us to call the adherents of the opposite opinion foul names. One way to show that our arguments are weak is to attack the person and not the issue. This is the movement from arguing “ad rem” (i.e. from the thing) to “ad personam” (i.e. to the person).
The second rule is to keep to that one issue and not fly from issue to issue, thereby making it impossible to make a complete point and get to the end of a logical sequence of argumentation.
The third rule is to put oneself in the shoes of the other and see the argument from their side of the issue. Everyone can try to find something in the logic of the other that can be agreed upon. It shows a respect for the opponent and a willingness to fairly assess one’s own position. In one of the debates, the town hall debate, one person asked the two presidential candidates to say something positive about the other. It is the one moment that I can still remember from that long evening of attacks and counterattacks.
In addition, there is a tendency in argumentation to lose sight of the importance of facts or data about the issue. Often we argue about something without having the facts about the case. Sometimes we simply do not have the relevant information to make a sound judgment. When two people argue without connecting to the facts, it simply becomes a question of emotion and an indiscriminate attempt to win based on clever rhetoric.
Allied to this problem is the attempt to change facts and to influence the outcome of the dispute through the clever manipulation of language. I think it was George Orwell (“1984”) who said that if you change the language, you change reality. For example, this happened when hidden cameras caught representatives of Planned Parenthood trying to sell fetal organs to undercover reporters. Horror followed until the newspapers changed the term ‘fetal organs’ to ‘fetal tissue’. This calmed down the furor considerably. ‘Reproductive choice’ and ‘Women’s health care’ were also used to sanctify Planned Parenthood to veer away from the facts that were actually caught on camera! Did we see those encounters repeatedly on the Evening News? No. The reason for this is that it did not fit into the political philosophy of the Networks; but, if something does fit the prevailing ‘narrative’, you see it a hundred times. This is not fighting fairly.
Whenever we debate a political point, we need to respect one another and be thankful for this free society that enables us to speak our mind openly. However, this does not excuse the attacks we level toward each other. The Media, and each of us, have a responsibility to Truth: to be honest and caring in our deliberations. Truth does exist, though it is hard to arrive at. The answer is not to join Pilate who skeptically asked Christ “Quid est Veritas (What is Truth)?” The answer is to believe that there is a ‘Truth’ and that we can grow in our knowledge through honest and civil discussion.
We need that today more than ever.