The forgotten art of Debate

Photo by Matt C on Unsplash

One quick glance at different news headlines or just 5’ switching between TV networks suffice to convince even the most naive news consumer that there is something seriously wrong with the way public discourse was (d)evolved in our societies over the last years. Of course, journalism was never entirely devoid of bias, not even in its “golden age”. Reporters and editors are merely human after all and their own views, beliefs, hopes and opinions have always tainted the products of their work, consciously or not. However, this kind of bias is a millions miles away from what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade and especially after the ascent of social media and the online dissemination of the news.

Today, we’re not just seeing slightly skewed reports and partisan views “leaking” into news articles. We moved on to much more dangerous practices, none of which could be excused as unwitting or inadvertent, ranging from “curated” evidence and carefully omitted facts to entirely manufactured narratives. Given the volume of today’s “news” content and the speed at which it is distributed around the world, there is no time for any normal citizen to stop and factcheck even the most important and consequential of stories. They instead keep scrolling down their feeds, quickly skimming through hundreds of headlines, all carefully handpicked by advanced algorithms to ensure they match their preexisting views. This way, even if they did have the time to do their own research to figure out what is true and what is not, almost nobody has the will to do so. Challenging our own beliefs is one of the scariest and most off-putting adventures we can ever embark on and this is why so few of us ever do. And this is precisely what the establishment, the Tech giants, the political rulers and the mainstream news conglomerates all rely on.

Many of those who are often critical of the political, social and economic status quo, myself included, may at times be too quick to point the finger at those in power and blame their greed and their egomaniacal obsession with power and control for all that ails us, as communities and as nations. While there is certainly a very large part of the blame that can justifiably and rightfully be placed at the feet of politicians and their “extended families”, it would be not only unfair, but also cowardly, to pretend they are the only ones responsible for this state of “decivilization” that we find ourselves in today.

As with any problem that affects us as individuals directly, I believe that the best place to start when looking to assign blame is the mirror. And when it comes to the pitiable state of public discourse, there are plenty of indications that we, as citizens, as taxpayers and as freethinkers, may have had something to do with it as well.

For one thing, it is very hard to imagine how the “divide and conquer” rhetoric we’ve been subjected to for decades already could have been as effective as it has been if the body politic refused to be divided in the first place. It also doubtful that the scourge of “fake news” and fabricated narratives would have been this deleterious to our social cohesion if we, as individuals, were less afraid of questioning the stories that confirmed what we already believed to be true.

At the core of all these issues lies one very disturbing trend: The art of Debate and the very concert of civilized and open dialogue have become all but extinct. The foundational principles behind any free exchange of ideas, which is the bedrock of Western civilization, are not only being directly challenged these days, they are increasingly akin to blasphemy — and we accepted and allowed this to happen. For example, one cannot have a productive debate, over anything at all, with anyone holding a different opinion, without acknowledging the possibility of being proven wrong. Of course, ideally, one should not just acknowledge, but embrace that possibility, since it is obvious to any rational mind that being right is worthless next to being corrected, bettered, and honed.

And yet, modern society has become so intellectually frail and feeble, that we’ve come to the point of equating being proven wrong with being insulted, personally offended and emotionally injured. This infantile belief has rendered any real dialogue essentially impossible. It has turned the majority of the population into petulant toddlers and the remaining adults into neurotics, walking on eggshells and self-censoring their own ideas, for fear they might accidentally blurb out an original thought one day and unleash carnage into their communities. It is because of this self-imposed subjugation of the mind that this divisive, deleterious rhetoric ever had any chance to succeed.

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