Is Polite Debate a lost Art?

This past September, I pointed out, in my Shofar column, our fascination with conflict. Even a superficial look at society reveals so many ways in which human beings engage in this. From competitive sports to open warfare; from domestic interactions to international relations; from the process of elections to the execution of government; from history to fiction, we have to admit we find conflict “entertaining,” especially if we can stand on the sidelines and watch it’s progression.

There’s at least another side of conflict that goes beyond entertainment, and that’s the process of give-and-take that takes place within a good debate. If we are exposed to both sides of well-argued proposition, it can allow us to get below surface impressions and prejudices and closer to true knowledge. We know that this is the time-honored way in which justice must be administered. Truth be told, anyone who seeks a greater understanding of a given situation requires a mind sufficiently open and, at the same time, critical of relevant information, no matter what side of the debate it comes from.

No wonder then, that so much of the “Rabbinical” material is filled with expressed disagreement between different individuals or groups and the careful, painstaking analysis of the various points of view. No wonder that ancient Greek society cultivated the “Socratic Method.”

All this, nevertheless, requires a tremendous amount of patience on our part; especially when it comes to listening to (or reading) opinions that aren’t congruent with ones own. For example, it just gets so easy to become caught up emotionally – as we can observe on a daily basis – in discussing the subjects that make up the deep political divide we are enduring as citizens of the United States. So little seems “shaded” these days. We either “hate” or “love” our political leaders and, instead of looking at observable facts, calmly debating their positive or negative value, so often I see insulting remarks being lobbed from one side to the other.

The internet and social media have made communication possible between individuals who may be total strangers. In addition, the way this communication takes place on a screen may make us oblivious that there is another human being behind those words. To this point we haven’t developed any etiquette to govern those “screen exchanges.”

However, I’m aware that hurling insults at the person who disagrees with you is an ancient, if not lame, technique of “winning” a debate. It’s called ad hominem when used as a tactic. It’s really a tacit admission that you’ve run out of good arguments with which to counter your opponent. Since you have no chance of proving them wrong by using logic, you wind up denigrating them.

To the extent that I’ve participated in online political debates, I see this constantly. What concerns me more, is the degree to which I hear these ad hominem’s from some of our country’s leaders. Beyond even that; it appears we, ourselves, in the heat of the moment, miss recognizing just how destructive this kind of conflict is, in the quest for wisdom and wise government.

As I remember; my dad loved to say, “Can’t we disagree, without being ‘disagreeable?’”

I look forward to the day when the “Age of Information” can give way to the “Age of Understanding” and even the “Age of Wisdom.”

I pray for the return of vigorous, polite debate!

With warm regards,

Mordecai Miller
Rabbi, Beth Ami Congregation.