Why Can’t We Argue Like Adults?

by: David Raney ((Header art is by the incredibly talented artist Elaine Wang.))

Problems need solutions, which require smart arguments, and unfortunately that’s something we don’t know how to do any more…

argue art

Richard Nixon didn’t invent the phrase “the silent majority,” but he popularized it in a 1969 speech about Vietnam. Whatever you might think of his argument, a half-century later it would be tough to point to any segment of society that’s silent, or even quiet, for very long. We talk, we tweet, we post. We rail away on radio, on our phones, in chat rooms, and of course in Congress.

But talking, as we all know, isn’t the same as saying something. I’m not the first to note that for all the prodigious matrices of our digitally connected society, a great deal of what passes for discourse today – sometimes, it seems, virtually all of it – bears no more imprint of thought than a child’s scrawl or a blast of radio static.

Much of the time that’s fine. No one wants to engage in Socratic dialogue all day, and there’s nothing wrong with posting vacation photos or tweeting for the home team or compiling listicles of the worst films of the decade. Problem is, we have problems, lots of them. Always have and always will, because there isn’t a way to live in a community of two without issues of governance arising (marriage anyone?), much less 300 million or 7 billion. Problems need solutions, which require smart arguments, and unfortunately that’s something we don’t know how to do any more.

A real argument doesn’t of course mean throwing punches (or dishes or epithets) and bellowing at each other. That’s a fight, and we’re good at those. Michael Sandel in a widely watched TED talk called “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate” refers ruefully to “shouting matches on cable television, ideological food fights on the floor of Congress.” A more mature way of settling disagreements is to talk with rather than past one another, to think more than yell. But it isn’t something we’re especially good at. In fact we’re terrible, it’s tempting to say hopeless.

It isn’t that Americans are dumb or even, in a global context, special in this. We’ve just never learned, those of us alive now, to argue about important, complicated things in a way that does justice to that old word. Argument dates to the beginning of recognizable English, to Chaucer’s day, and derives from the Latin word for a barrel of things we no longer insist on when we argue: evidence, support, proof, logic. What survives under that label is closer to muscular reflex, not a carefully defended position but a full-auto rifle in a room full of twitchy fingers.

Think that’s strong? Maybe you and your friends conduct yourself differently. But do your friends believe radically different things than you? If so, do you ignore “politics” (always referred to as if it were a single thing) and talk about the Giants game or your crazy boss, leaving the uncomfortable stuff for politicians to sort out? Everyone else does, too. That’s why less than half of us vote, even during the quadrennial presidential circus; at the local level, an election or referendum is lucky to draw 20%.

And it’s not that we don’t care about anything important – although as a culture we’re depressingly distractible, like kittens in a burning house batting at string – it’s more like we’ve decided to care about those things by proxy. Whatever my senator says, or some media blowhard, or my grandfather or that guy who reminds me of him, that’s what I think too. It makes us a nation of babies, without any of the cuteness and potential that make it worth mopping up all the mess.

Here’s what that mental outsourcing brings: three-quarters of Democrats, but fewer than one in twelve Republicans, approve of Obamacare; half of all conservatives say it’s important to live in a place where people think like them, and half of liberals say most of their friends share their views; half of one party and a third of the other claims they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married across the aisle; 72% of whites think the police treat races equally while only 36% of blacks do; 53% of Republicans supported automatic voter registration before Hillary Clinton proposed it, just 28% after. House Republicans now keep a “Party Unity Score” (currently 94.6%) in voting against Democrats. On the sillier side, 85% of Democrats recently said they believe President Obama loves his country; only 11% of Republicans agree. This cannot reflect independent thought.

There are plenty of examples outside the Beltway, of course, but our two-party system is the entrenched model for discourse, dialogue, debate, call it what you want.

Consciously or not, this promotes an approach that almost never deviates from binary thinking, a phrase that should probably have its second word in quotes. Virtually nothing worth talking about has exactly two sides, but that’s what we now seem to believe about the world. In poll after poll, Americans asked about various social and cultural issues split as you might expect: roughly 40-50% for, about the same against with a few undecided. But when broken down by Democrat and Republican, this seemingly widespread uncertainty reveals itself as falling on hardened battle lines. On topic after topic – science, public policy, education, the environment, arts and ethics, war and taxes, a hundred other issues – party affiliation replaces rational thought with as many as 90% declaring themselves for and 10% against…everything.

It’s worth repeating that this isn’t just an American phenomenon. Rafael Behr, a political columnist for The Guardian, laments the “cult of message discipline” in British politics that encourages “synthetic partisan outrage” and makes compromise virtually impossible. In Russia, where an unpopular public argument risks much more than a lost election or social media smackdown, it isn’t shocking that 81% of the citizenry has a “very or mainly bad” opinion of the United States. Et tu, Canada? Teshini Harrison of York University in Toronto asks, “When is the last time we heard substantive debate or even anything remotely civil coming out of the House of Commons?” Aristotle, as she points out, distinguished two kinds of public discourse: one largely ceremonial that touched our sentiments about good and evil, good guys and bad guys, and another that actually dealt with trying to define our shared goals and the best means for achieving those goals.

I’ll leave it for you to decide which of these you hear more often from podium and pulpit, or from TV talking heads wrestling for ratings.

One method for nudging the first sort of stance toward the second is to lower the heat. I once saw an emergency fire box at a recreation center – the break-the-glass kind, with a hose and axe – that had one letter rubbed off to read: IRE EXTINGUISHER. What a good thing that would be to have on hand! Another option is to model ourselves on the Persians, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus debated matters of the highest importance twice: once sober and once drunk. I’m all for this in private life, and I don’t see how it could possibly degrade proceedings at the White House or the Capitol. The alternative is the triumphalist approach, a tactic that Bernard Lewis sums up in the formula “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell.” Neither in religion nor in any other area of human endeavor has this led to progress, unless that would be a thing you measure in casualties.

We battle not just culture but biology in all this. A 2012 study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College showed that even advanced science students took substantially longer to mark “True” next to statements that challenged their “naïve beliefs” – asserting that humans are descended from sea creatures, for example, or that the Earth revolves around the sun. Both statements are true, of course, but they’re counterintuitive compared to humans descending from apes or the moon revolving around Earth. Such primal beliefs are suppressed, Shtulman concluded, but never entirely unlearned.

Social scientists have been describing another relevant mental hurdle since the 1960s: “confirmation bias,” our persistent tendency to remember or interpret only information that confirms what we already know (or think we know). Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has watched this at the physiological level. In 2003 he monitored undergraduates on an fMRI as they watched video of perhaps the most famous of these true, but non-intuitive, phenomena: Galileo’s different-sized cannonballs falling at exactly the same rate. The students registered bursts of activity in a brain area (the anterior cingulate cortex) associated with error and contradiction. Essentially their brains were muttering, below the level of conscious thought, “That just can’t be right.”

Something similar happens when we’re presented with political opinions that differ from our own. David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, explains:

“The brain scans of a person shown statements that oppose her political stance show that the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented that confirms her beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened.”

McRaney adds yet another obstacle, “confabulation,” to the list of things we have to overcome if we’re to reason or argue honestly. If that sounds like a preference for fairy tales, it’s not far off; confabulation is when you lie to yourself and others without realizing it … creating narratives to explain yourself to yourself…. Psychologists see time and again that those explanations are just stories [that] may or may not match the truth of the matter.

You might say it takes a lot of work to be fully human, to use the reasoning faculties we’re lavishly gifted with. It’s worth it, though. Because how well we argue is another way of saying how well we think for ourselves. Christopher Lasch remarked years ago that “candidates rely on their advisers to stuff them full of facts and figures, quotable slogans. Only ideas are missing.” And in the absence of ideas – the lifeblood animating inert facts, the train that will take them somewhere – citizens simply agree with whatever platform, person or party they feel an attachment to. Dan Kahan of Yale in 2010 studied people “arguing” this way, about climate change and other divisive issues, by what he calls “cultural predisposition.” National Geographic’s Joel Achenbach sums up the findings: “We’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this.”

An “Us vs. Them” stalemate, reinforcing trenches, is the opposite of real argument. For that, two things are absolutely required, besides the will to think for yourself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package. The first is to find some sense that we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, House and Senate colleagues, delegates to the United Nations General Assembly or friends talking at a coffee shop, but the default position has to be: We win if we agree.

This means thinking of compromise as triumph, not capitulation, and of civility as respect – always preferable to violence – but not only that, not just politeness. The word’s older meaning is “the art of governing,” making it a cousin of civilization. Argument can be heated, even discourteous (debate derives from “beat down”), without losing its essential role in a civilized society. There’s no lack of passion in Voltaire’s great line “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it” (coined by his biographer, as it happens, and occasionally misattributed to Patrick Henry). But hot or not, true argument has to be about governing ourselves, in every sense.

American history is much more invigorating, for instance, when you recognize that it wasn’t all destiny, the Founding Fathers posed in static engravings and mouthing the script we all know by heart. They were arguing for their lives, literally, and for their idea of the good life – elegantly, desperately, for weeks in Philadelphia swelter, sweating through their wigs and coats as they tried to filter facts, run them through a prism of ideas and reassemble them into a new kind of world. It had every chance of failing miserably.

Certainly every successful argument does flow from facts, and the best owe a lot to eloquence and, in person, to charisma. But the second absolute requirement is an attitude that no one adopts easily, a position that can be expressed in four words: I could be wrong. “Doubt is the engine of intelligence,” is the nice phrasing of neuroscientist Colin Blakemore. More famously, “The spirit of liberty,” Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of the sentence, less often quoted, runs “….the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women….which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”

That is hard as hell to do, though, because we’re simply not built that way. We cluster and lean, we’re bias machines. No one likes being wrong, we don’t very much enjoy limbo, and our anti-intellectual culture casts doubt as weakness – even while it celebrates science, which of course thrives on doubt and questions everything, enshrining the provisional: “until proven otherwise.” The easiest way to combat all this mental discomfort is to turn the volume knob to 11. When in doubt, shout. This may not fool many smart people (Reinhold Niebuhr: “Men insist most vehemently upon their certainties when their hold upon them has been shaken”), but it has the advantage of making plenty of them give up in disgust. And if you’re a leader, or aspire to be one, it also avoids the charge of flip-flopping or hesitancy. The capacity to change your mind in the face of better evidence should be a concise definition of wisdom, but it gets CEOs and congressmen fired.

Banal as it sounds, the whole thing may come down to listening. Right now when anyone begins “For the sake of argument,” what we hear is: “I’ll be skewering your ridiculous view (which I show no evidence of understanding), then it’s back to the regularly scheduled program. You can stop listening.” Tom Yorton, who counsels businesses on improving “Creativity, Communication and Collaboration,” three things I think we could use more of, told the editors of Big Think recently, “Listening is critical in life, but for all the energy and time we spend practicing our writing skills and our speaking skills, we do none of that. There’s no practice at all for listening.” The result:

“Often in our communication, whether it’s personal or professional, it’s almost like a game show. Halfway through what another person’s saying, we’ve got our hand on the buzzer ready to complete the answer. We know where they’re going. We’re done listening to them…And often at that halfway and beyond point, we lose vital information. We lose the chance to truly understand what that person’s saying. You have to listen to understand, not just respond.”

Responding is easy, thumb poised over the buzzer. That’s the beat-down part of debate. To understand what our neighbors are saying, never mind global warming or the Middle East, is much harder and we’re untrained for it, and fighting our own brains, and generally too lazy to try. But we’d be so much better off if we could make argument not just another noisy diversion but the central project in our lifelong education. It would dispose us more kindly toward other humans, in both senses: to feel more of a kind, and to act more kindly. (which may be only one sense.) If we can’t manage that, our species will continue to strike any dispassionate observer as a pack of idiots driving clown cars toward extinction. But I could be wrong.


David Raney is the executive editor​ of Quail Pointe Publishing, which specializes in memoirs. His work has appeared in nearly forty journals, most recently Green Mountains Review and Compose. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, son and Volkswagen-sized dog.

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