Friday, February 3, 2012

Debating debating

     There's a story that's told about a preacher new to a congregation.  At his first service, he gave a top-notch sermon -- everyone thought so.  The following week, he preached exactly the same sermon.  People were a bit perplexed.  The following week, he preached it again.  The next week the same.  This time, one of the congregational leaders took him aside and said, "People are confused; you've preached the same sermon word-for-word four times in  a row.  Don't you have another sermon?"  The preacher responded, "It doesn't seem like y'all have heard it.  Nothing's changed."
       I recall, too, the movie Groundhog Day in which poor Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over and over and over . . . every day being awakened to Sonny and Cher singing "I got you babe" on the clock-radio.
      On Tuesday of this week, I was listening to radio reports out of Florida as the Republican primary election was occurring.  One of the comments I remember hearing more than once was that the voters were SO grateful that the election had come, so they wouldn't be subjected to more attack advertisements, robo-calls or debates.  In other news items, I heard references to our "national debates" about this issue or that issue.  And, in the discussion we had this week over Anne-Marie Slaughter's book The Idea that is America, we noted how she refers to the need for conversation/discussion/debate about various American values.
       And I began to ponder "debates."  I remember formal debates when I was in high school; forensic societies still exist both in secondary and higher education.  Each side has an opportunity to make a case, and then rebut the opposition, regarding a specific proposition.  At the end, a winner is declared -- by different mechanisms, depending on the venue.  I recall debates being the marshaling of facts, persuasive argumentation, even some cleverness on the part of the debaters.  A far cry from the way "debate" seems to have devolved in our public discourse.
      Yes, debates probably should have winners or losers.  But what we see on TV seems a far cry from any decent debate; they seem to be more a public forum for airing a position and attacking the opponent (or the media).  And when we translate that kind of "debate" to a national (or local) issue, it seems we seldom have a discussion of substance where we can learn from one another and arrive at compromise or consensus.  Civility is lost, rancor increases, animosity results.  Nothing changes.
      Research shows that attack ads work, even though no one reportedly likes them.  And cries go out -- apparently unheeded -- for a change in the way we conduct ourselves in public discourse.  Why do we keep doing what we don't like?  Is is just because we have to satisfy our own need to be "right" -- even if it comes at the expense of another person?  I've intimated this before, but what if we actually respected our opposition and learned from them rather than demonizing them and discounting them?  What if we inhabited their world and they ours?  What if we accepted the fact that their ideas had as much merit as ours, and that, together, we might forge something new and worthwhile?
      In the meantime, can we declare a moratorium on the word "debate" unless it really it really has something to do with forensics?  Can we return to discussion/conversation as a means of discourse?  We've got so much to do as a society -- so much more than name-calling, polarizing, and demonizing.
     I believe we must; I believe we can.  And I'll keep saying it from time to time, in different ways, hoping . . . . someday we'll really wake up.


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