It has come to my attention that my political views differ greatly from — well — every man, woman, and child on the planet. It isn’t easy, but I have come to accept that I’m right while everyone else is wrong. I could try to seek a middle ground on issues like illegal immigration, abortion, or which sitcom sucks the most, but to do so I’d have to compromise my principles. I happen to think that my principles are among my best attributes, and I’m not ready to chuck them aside for the sake of a harmonious exchange. Still, debate is important and — to be honest — I enjoy a healthy debate. Furthermore, I can disagree with you and accept that you disagree with me, and do so in a respectful manner. In fact, in spite of the fact we might exist in fundamental disagreement, I might actually like you and you might actually like me.
The art of debate is lost in America. The ability to challenge an idea without attacking the person behind the idea is practically a thing of the past. Read the venom unleashed by the left whenever Glenn Beck opens his mouth or the equally potent poison unleashed by the right whenever Keith Olbermann opens his mouth. Modern political pundits are — first and foremost — marketing hacks. They exist to spin the news, and they know next-to-nothing about framing an argument or responding to someone in a reasonable manner. In the interest of raising the level of debate in this country, here are some rules for would-be pundits out there:
1 ) Have an INFORMED opinion: Using the Keith/Glenn example, nothing annoys me more than when one of them opens his mouth and the other doesn’t hesitate to publicly respond about how wrong the first guy is. There is nothing wrong with hesitating. Take the time to research and prepare a counterargument. It would be the easy way out to call Keith or Glenn a big bag of gas and move on to other things, but in doing so — though you are probably correct — you lose the argument and no true debate has occurred. Don’t guess at statistics. Don’t make assumptions. Think before you speak.
2 ) Be prepared to accept a good idea from a bad source: Even a broken clock is right twice a day (assuming it is analog). From time to time, the “enemy” may be correct. You have to get into the practice of listening to ideas while ignoring the source. If you’re a lifelong Democrat, don’t assume every Republican idea is wrong (and vice-versa). Healthy, respectful debate often begins with a point of agreement, then transitions to the differences of opinion.
3 ) Be prepared to reject a bad idea from a good source: You may respect President Obama, or you may have respected President Bush, but there is no greater hindrance to true debate than idol worship. People make mistakes. People lie. All of them. Constantly. Recognize that the leader of your party — the leader of your country — is going to screw up 17 ways before breakfast, the same as you. Don’t automatically accept an idea because you admire the source. If anything, you have to be more careful when weighing the merits of an idea if it comes from someone you respect. Do not get caught supporting a person. Support an idea and you’ll find yourself on more solid ground.
4 ) Stay on target: Tangents, analogies, and so-called straw arguments only hurt your cause. Don’t point out that your opponent has made mistakes in other, unrelated areas — they don’t matter. Don’t liken the health care debate to the environment, when the health care debate is the issue at hand — all analogies are imperfect. And don’t suddenly leap to another issue you feel you are better able to speak towards. None of these tactics work and they only serve to harm your position.
5 ) Show TOO MUCH respect: There is a way to demonstrate respect without seeming insincere. However, if you can’t do it, it is better to seem insincerely respectful than disrespectful. If you disagree with that, then do so respectfully. If you get the chance to debate Hitler — who has somehow magically raised from the dead — address him by his proper title, and preface responses with phrases like “With all due respect…” or “Sir, I humbly disagree.” I don’t care if Hitler counters with a disparaging remark about Jews, the Polish, or your mother. Maintain civility.
6 ) Nobody is beneath you: I happen to believe that Sarah Palin and Alec Baldwin are two of the stupidest people who have ever lived, but I wouldn’t hesitate to engage either one of them in debate (particularly those two, because they seem to be surrounded by hordes of worshipers). If you are right, then always be right. Regardless of who is challenging you, make the time, state your case, and don’t worry about coming across as too mean or too smart when facing an unevenly matched opponent. Oh, in a true debating situation, I wouldn’t refer to Sarah or Alec as stupid — I’d let them speak for themselves, completely convinced their respective stupidity would shine like a spotlight in a dark room.
7 ) You are not Spock: By all means, point out logical fallacies in your opponent’s argument. Point out inconsistencies and shortcomings. But understand that human beings are driven by emotion, and do not expect logic alone to win the day. Opinions on hot-button issues like abortion are often personal in nature, and tend to be formed by experience and background more than by facts or figures. Argue the science (or lack thereof), but do so with the understanding that you cannot ignore the emotion of the issue. Also recognize that your emotions are a part of you, and they could just as easily cloud your judgment. At the very least, emotions are helping to form your opinion.
8 ) Listen:* The Sunday morning chat shows are filled with panel discussions, but they aren’t really debates because an essential ingredient in a debate is that people listen to each other. Most pundits get booked to represent a special interest or point of view, and come to the table armed with their talking points, determined to get them spoken on camera. It is unfortunate. Very often, heads of state appear on these sorts of shows and the potential for engaging them in substantive debate makes my head spin. But it doesn’t happen, because nobody is there to pay attention to each other — they are only there to talk. And I blame the hosts of those shows, too, who could create a totally different atmosphere by asking relevant follow-up questions. If only they would listen to their own guests.
9 ) Admit defeat: President Bush failed to convince many Americans that the War in Iraq was the right thing to do. President Obama failed to convince many Americans that comprehensive health care reform was needed for all. As a result, we’re engaged in a largely unsupported war and the health care bill that passed is a joke. I admit I have a hard time with this rule (because, as stated at the onset, I’m always right), but sometimes no matter how convincing you believe you are, remember the wise man who said, “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose.” Know when to bow out gracefully and live to fight another day. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up exasperated.
10 ) Love thy enemy: Anyone willing to rise to the level of intelligent debate is worthy of your respect, tolerance, admiration, and friendship. In most cases, your opponent is not seeking to make the world worse. In most cases, you both believe you know what is best; you are both starting from that baseline. Many of my closest friends are politically opposed to me in every way, yet I would entrust them with my life.
All of these can be achieved if you are focused and prepared. Frankly, what passes for debate these days is insulting to my intelligence. If nothing else, the next time you happen to be witnessing a debate take place, review this list and count how many times the opponents break the rules. Pay particular attention when you happen to be in agreement with an individual. You may be surprised to discover what it is you are actually agreeing with.
* It is particularly irritating — when trying to post a thoughtful article — to be faced with the realization that the insertion of a right parenthesis next to the number 8 results in a sunglasses wearing happy face. As if the world needed further proof that substance is not paramount on the internet…