How should a society decide what to do on the big questions? Questions like, “should abortion be legal?”, “should same-sex marriage be legal?”, or “should we build a wall?” I think there are really just two choices. We can decide the big questions by engaging in a conflict of power, or by attempting to persuade with reason and evidence–i.e., through civil discourse.
The Two Choices
Whichever method you choose, it will favor some groups over others. If you choose reason, then the academic/educated elite may have an edge, since they simply know more and carry more authority in the battle of ideas. Academics, scientists, lawyers, and doctors have been trained to argue for their views. Most people find it frustrating to engage with academics who talk over their heads and have little patience for the less-educated. The groups that wins the intellectual conflict may have just been more clever at cheating, but they may also have the best science, research, and logic behind their view. Relevant metaphor: the debate.
If you choose power, then the “majority” or the current power-holders will have an edge. Those currently in power have most of the political, financial, and social resources at their command, and they will fight to keep it that way. But at the same time, numbers can also claim power. If a groups has enough motivated members, it can use the physical power and volume of a mob to wrest authority away from those who hold it and take their place at the top. The biggest/strongest group wins and gets to run things their way. Relevant metaphor: the boxing match.
Which Method Is Best?
You may naturally prefer one or the other. Myself, being a nerd, I prefer the battle of wits. I talked my way out of several physical confrontations as a kid, mainly because I knew I would lose in the boxing ring. But I’ll take on almost anyone in a debate! If, on the other hand, you are 6’4″, 250 pounds, it might be to your advantage to fight with your hands. You may also prefer the power conflict if you have lots and lots of friends–safety in numbers and all that.
However, the real question is, which method is more likely to help us arrive at the decision that is best for our society? It is tempting to simply answer according to your natural or current preference. If you are currently in power, or have a lot of power, you may say, “power conflict!” But if you are highly educated and eloquent, you may say, “battle of wits!” In other words, people tend to be highly utilitarian–they will choose whichever method helps them win.
Wits Over Power?
Here’s my take on the question. If you say, “power,” then you must accept something very hard. One day, your group will no longer have the power or the majority. When that day comes, you cannot cry foul when those with the power impose their will on you. If Muslims become the majority in the United States, and they elect representatives to congress, and they can implement Islamic laws, then more power to them, right? You can try to gather more power and depose them, but you cannot complain that they are bullies.
Moreover, what is the natural progression of a power conflict? Violence and ultimately, war. When we bow only to power, and not to reason or ideals of justice, then the conflict can only be settled when the enemy has been physically conquered. And if they will not surrender, then they must be destroyed.
But if you say, “wits,” then your side can always have a voice. Reason doesn’t require force. More voices asserting the same argument does not increase its cogency or soundness. Numbers, weapons, physical strength, mean nothing at the debate podium or in the academic journal (ideally). Ideas can only be beaten by better ideas, and if the best ideas win, then that is what we want, right? If you are a minority group, you need only one person to make a compelling case for your view. And the standards of reason, ethics and justice do not play favorites. They serve only the truth.
Now, I am fully aware that what I’m saying is idealistic. If some of us choose to “fight” with reason and evidence, but those in power refuse to play on our turf, then they can simply shut us down. Does this mean we must resort to playing on their turf, by their rules? Sometimes this may be justified, but when we have a choice and the freedom to speak, we should choose words over fists.
Conclusion: Promote Civil Discourse
This is why we should never silence or gag people. If their ideas are bad, show it with reason and evidence. Violence is a poor response to a bad idea. There is nothing wrong with limiting discourse within your group, but in the public square, we cannot do this. We must let reason and justice win out in a fair “fight.” Be careful about using power to publicly silence others, because you may find that turnabout is fair play.
So, I am committed to the promotion of civil discourse. This means public conversations about important issues between people who disagree. I’ve been holding civil discourse events on college campuses in the Midwest, centered around the question of religious belief. The video below is an excellent example. Dr. Paul Hamilton and I talk and answer questions at Missouri University of Science and Technology about how Christianity and atheism answer various questions about life. If you enjoy the video, please share it (and this blog post) with others. We need more of this in the public square, including on social media!
One thought on “The Importance of Civil Discourse”
Um, my reply to this post is currently at 2882 words… and counting. I think it might form a chapter in that book on political theory I’m slowly accruing. Suggestions?