Thoughts & Things

Let’s argue and remain friends

January 19, 2019

18th-century philosopher   David   Hume once told.  Truth springs from arguments amongst friends. But in 2019, one question being raised is, can people argue and remain friends? The current state of arguments in our society has brought us to this question. As we all know, arguments have a long history. They are as old as humanity. From the ancient days, argument was one of the most effective ways to reach the truth and one of the best ways to learn.  Arguments or debates remained the hallmark of all democratic societies. It was widely believed that healthy debates were the best method to decide what is best for people. The Socratic critical enquiry is perhaps an interesting conception of debate in democracies. It is absolutely unauthoritarian. Here the status of the speaker does not count, only the nature of the argument. The advent of social media and the internet has further democratised arguments and we started consuming it more and more. However, a time has come to think seriously about the state of our arguments and how we are conducting it nowadays.

State of our arguments

Amartya Sen has written a whole book about the argumentive Indian. Of course, we are fond of arguments. But the question is how we are doing it now? Our arguments have become noisy and adversarial generating more bitterness and ill will. Our parliament is struggling to have peaceful debates and what rules our television debates is utter chaos and noise. It appears that we have forgotten that one can debate without raising one’s voice. When social media happened in a big way, it just followed what was already happening in the visual media in a  much more aggressive form.  There was neither a rule book nor an editor. Of course, the absence of both was expected to make it the most democratic platform. To a great extent, it has achieved that freedom.  It gave everyone a voice and people could freely exchange their views. However what we see now in social media is slow degeneration in the quality of debates. Abuse and prejudice are on the rise. There is little space for alternative views. We also see a dangerous compartmentalisation. It’s always a case of either you are with us or against us. There are only two ways of arguments. No space for the neutral observer most of the times. We must introspect whether this binary will help us to understand issues better. It is not that one should not take sides but there is a decent way to it. Can we think of some norms for conducting an argument?

The Dennet principle

Daniel Dennet, perhaps one of the tallest living philosopher of our times suggested a four-step way to conduct a successful critical commentary.  I feel that in our day to day life of arguments this is a very important idea.   Of course, it is a  tall order to follow that. Still, it is illuminating.  These are the four key steps according to Dennet.

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Now this is  an ideal scenario and it may be height of  expectations to imagine such arguments taking place . What  we have in social media  is an attempt to muzzle any voice of disagreement  and impose  one’s  side.  We forget the basic  lesson that it is  always possible to agree to disagree.  We also fail to understand that it is usually  from your critics you learn.  It is  very common to see that many arguments are taken out of context and are thrashed  without  any kindness. In the wake of this  polemical  atmosphere of  arguments , offering her remarks at Harvards  2018 graduation , Nigerian Novelist Chimamanda  ngozi told  the students

“ always  remember  context and never  disregard intent.”

In other words we should first try to understand  before judging. I think this can be a thumb rule.  

Every opinion  matters

For any serious observer of our debates, one thing is very visible. We are slowly losing our ability to argue with empathy. The most important thing in a debate is to realise that there are people whose views are different from us.  It won’t be an exaggeration to say that a person holding a  different opinion is becoming an anachronism now. We must realise that for every person it must be possible to harbour a thought without accepting it.  Our notions of majority and minority in a democracy is also changing. The majority have no divine right to impose their opinion on the minority.  The beauty of democracy is that minority has an equal right to hold on to their beliefs.  None put it so brilliantly like John Stuart  Mill.

“ If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”  

That’s the  real  spirit of   democracy  . In democracy everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. 

Living in our own worlds

One interesting feature of social media is that it creates groups of people who think alike.  Look at our Whatsapp groups or Facebook friends. We may not be having many who hold very different views in the groups. So we hardly encounter opposition to our opinion and we get used to that. It is also true that many groups find it difficult to exist peacefully when a few members raise a different view.  This is something very important. We tend to read what may reinforce our ideas. We are in frantic search of opinions which justify our views. We tend to follow whom we like. We rarely look for views challenging our ideas. We just prefer to belong to our own worlds.  This inability to conduct a dialogue with people holding different views must be introspected.  Ideas pass the test of time when they are fiercely contested. To sum up, perhaps it is high time we learned again the rules of a good argument.

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