Arguments today cite YouTube videos, memes, and tweets, and we’re badly divided. We need to return to healthy debate that doesn’t just engage our emotions.
I spent years teaching Critical Thinking to students in college, and giving young minds the tools to analyze what they see happening in the world and to successfully argue a point using facts while spotting fallacies was a proud responsibility that I enjoyed a great deal. But today, in this political atmosphere of divisiveness, politicians can contradict themselves, even on video, and there are no consequences.
Lindsey Graham famously said that if the GOP nominated Trump they would be destroyed … and they would deserve it. Today, Graham is a Trump sycophant. Trump didn’t know Stormy Daniels and didn’t pay her off, until we found out that he did. Trump criticized President Obama for golfing and said he’d never go golfing himself, we all know how that turned out. If the truth is inconvenient for them, they lie. This has carried over into arguments between different political parties and the citizens like you and me. No one wins any arguments today, and we can’t survive as a country unless we figure out how to argue civilly again.
Claims are made every day without any facts, and cognitive bias keeps people believing in a cult of personality instead of experts, investigative journalists, and the best scientific minds. For the first two years of this administration, I would have disagreements with Trump supporters in the way I taught my students to argue. I’d have my opinion and support it with facts by looking up scientific papers, quotes from experts, or articles from credible sources. I found that not many people argue using the rules of rhetoric anymore. Arguments today don’t use facts to back up opinion, they don’t even use fallacies. Today, too many people try to back up their opinions with YouTube videos, memes, and tweets. They’ve taken the proud tradition of debate, of political discourse, a tradition that goes back to the Sumerians and perfected by the Greeks, and they’ve reduced it to “not-uh, what-about”-ism, or just plugging their ears and screaming until what they don’t want to hear goes away.
We can’t survive as a country unless we figure out how to argue civilly again.
I thought a long time about a way to get through to someone who believes an obvious lie or conspiracy. How does one come to the conclusion that President Obama, a Harvard graduate and Constitutional Lawyer, was born in Kenya and really a Muslim who hated America? How does an anonymous source on 4 Chan convince a twenty-eight-year-old firefighter from North Carolina to drive all the way to Washington D.C. and shoot up a family pizza parlor because, supposedly, powerful elected Democrats ran a sex slave ring out of the non-existent basement? How does Trump, with no evidence, make millions of self-professed patriots believe some of our country’s most respected institutions like the FBI, CIA, Supreme Court, South District of New York Courts, Germany, France, Canada, and other allies are biased against him?
I found arguing a point with someone who ignores facts and contradictions is near impossible. I’ve flippantly used the term “Khmer Orange” because of Trump’s complexion and anti-intellectualism in Cambodia in the late ’70s, but seriously, I can’t state how dangerous this is. Without communication (which is half argument), how can this democratic experiment survive? If this divisiveness continues, we will lose our place. If we discredit and/or fire everyone who disagrees with us, who will we be left with? If we only listen to the news we agree with, how will we see and plan for emergencies? Look at how Trump is dealing with COVID-19 right now for an answer.
Listen, I understand that it is so much easier to believe in a lie that makes our lives easier than it is to believe a hard truth that asks us to sacrifice, but that doesn’t make the hard truth any less true. Example: climate change. Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma (a former insurance salesman) can bring a snowball in on the floor of the Senate and laugh about how it’s cold outside so climate change isn’t real, but that doesn’t change the fact that our hurricanes are coming stronger and more frequently, it doesn’t change the fact that wildland fires are destroying entire towns, it doesn’t change that rising tide, bleached coral reefs, or dead zones in the ocean bigger than Texas.
People don’t want to be wrong. And I understand that, so I will take the first step and admit that I’m wrong.
- If we get to see Trump’s tax returns and it turns out that he is legitimately a billionaire who earned his money legally, I’ll apologize.
- If somehow the environment heals itself after pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement and rolling back environmental regulations, I’ll scream to the skies I was wrong.
- If women come together and decide getting grabbed by their genitals is a turn on, I’ll say I was wrong.
- If Iran or Korea say, “You know, we were going to develop nukes, but after dealing with the genius of this administration, we decided against it,” I’ll say my bad.
- If somehow defunding and contradicting the Centers for Disease Control and pulling out of the World Health Organization during a global pandemic turns out to save lives, I will applaud.
- If Roger Stone avoids prison as a seven-time convicted felon and goes on to cure cancer or prove he’s a productive member of society, I’ll say I was wrong.
- If disabled people around the world decide that Trump making fun of a reporter with arthrogryposis really helped them out somehow, I’ll say sorry.
- And if thousands of Muslims come forward and say they were celebrating the attacks of 9/11 hours after it happened, like Trump said and Serge Kovaleski contradicted … hell, I’d accept a photo of this happening, or a witness who thinks it may have happened, I will say I was wrong.
That’s the difference today. One side will believe in bold-faced lies so they can keep their high ground, while the other side will believe evidence. One side thinks that the CDC is only doing this to hurt Trump’s reelection chances, the other side believes that the CDC being cautious and having policies in place before our children return to school is a smart precaution that will save lives. One side believes it’s President Obama, the Ukraine, the FBI, the CIA, and everyone else in the world interfering with our elections, the other side believes our intelligence agency when they say it’s Russia. One side thinks COVID-19 is a hoax and will “disappear” any time, the other side believes we are living through a global pandemic that will require us to wear masks and live selflessly to protect our most vulnerable.
At the risk of giving one last lecture on rhetoric, I’ll tell you that, to really win an argument, you must use ethos, logos, and pathos. Basically, ethos is your experience, tradition, and culture. This is why you listen to Shaq when he sells you Gold Bond talcum powder. This is why you need a personality to relate with and trust telling you the news, whether it’s Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity. Ethos also has to do with tradition and culture. Logos is the appeal to logic. This means facts, direct quotes, graphs, and statistics (from a credible source). And, finally, pathos is the appeal to emotion, which could mean outrage like on Fox News or humor on The Daily Show. Really great shows will make you feel multiple emotions.
Today, we pour everything into the appeal to emotion (pathos), and, when we do so, emotions run high. They’re so busy trying to get people pissed off that they forget you need logic (logos) and you need ethics (ethos) to win an argument. People forget that hurting the other person’s feelings isn’t winning an argument. Being the best liar doesn’t mean you are the best politician. We cannot continue this way. Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” I’ll go on to say, “I believe this government cannot endure permanent half-wits and intellectuals. I do not expect democracy to be erased from the planet, but I do expect our country will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”