The Arena of Ideas

Have you ever listened to a conversation between an atheist and a Christian? OrI Can't Hear You how about a liberal and a libertarian, a businessman and an environmentalist? Pretty interesting stuff because it has the potential for either a total meltdown of personal attacks – or – become a great example of the lost art of debate. Either way you’ll learn something about the people involved, the depth to which cultural discourse has sunk, or the height where sharing concepts and ideas can soar. Unfortunately …..

  …. as a result of the ongoing devolution of our media we continue to be bombarded with poor examples to emulate. We are fed a steady stream of useless discourse by loud mouth talking heads whose ideas must fit into a 15 second sound bite, usually contain a dubious conglomeration of statistics and facts and are punctuated with either attitude, anger, or total deafness the second their own mouth closes. And this is usually after the network moderator has agitated the conversationalists, or should I say contestants, into a froth. ‘Moderator’; hmmm – an interesting choice of a word for what they are paid to do.

In those cases where a scripted yet civilized dialogue takes place between a would be interviewer and someone who has ideas to share, one has to wonder how much of those ideas were left on the editing room floor. I automatically find myself applying this filter when I listen to Christiane Amanpour, Fareed Zakaria, or the entire 60 Minutes staff.

I once stumbled onto a debate between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Steven Breyer. While this sounds like a 3 a.m. C-Span offering (actually, it may have been) it should have been aired on network prime time and required curriculum at the collegiate level; it was that good. Even Slate Magazine raved about seeing these ideological adversaries tussle. Here were two men of renown intellect and character from different sides of the ideological track in terms of ideas, foundations, and insight. They put polar opposite thoughts on the table and discussed them. No hyperbole, no emotion outside of collegial chiding for each others’ disparate thought process, and yet a persistent sense of camaraderie of two heavyweights in the arena of ideas. They left the arena as they arrived, friends.

That one hour became a life lesson for me about tolerance, debate, and effectively presenting a thought with an ideological adversary. Bill O’Reilly and James Carville are pretty smart guys but their egos and boorish manners drown out otherwise cogent arguments every time they meet an opponent. They’d be better at what they do if they took some time to watch the body language and listen to Breyer and Scalia’s presentation.

Former Secretary of Education and best selling author William Bennett is another in Scalia and Breyer’s league of being able to communicate with – as opposed to talking at – an ideological adversary. He does it every morning on his radio show, Morning in America, where there are no enemies, just wayward thinkers with whom he can negotiate.

In conversations where we hold a perspective worthy of discussion, we make some pretty basic mistakes that derail us before our ideas are laid out.

First, we don’t take a position of respecting the other person, their life experience, or their intellect enough to grant them their own opinion. Without that you can never really listen and digest what they have to say enough to respond appropriately; let alone make inroads to changing their thought process.  It reminds me of the adage that …those who demand the most tolerance usually have the least to give.

Hearing what is actually said comes next, and frankly most of us are terrible listeners. In our desire to respond and refute we often don’t give opposing ideas time to sink in. A simple: “you make an interesting point, not sure I agree with it however give me a minute to think about it” …  indicates a genuine desire have a dialogue, allow an opposing idea to gain a foothold or fall through thin ice.

Passion can have a front row seat for these types of scenarios but deep seated emotion shouldn’t be let in the building. Disagreement doesn’t have to be an emotional event. Likewise, agreeing to disagree isn’t necessarily stalemate. If you got to that point, your emotion was effectively kept in check and won’t be an obstacle to revisiting the subject at a later time.

When disagreements crop up we should be more interested in getting to how someone thinks rather than what they think. People will usually expose what they think pretty readily but it is the hidden thought process that got them to their perspective which will tell infinitely more about that person. For example, I’m fine with someone telling me they reject my views. Game on! What then becomes interesting is discovering what has led them to that rejection. Conversations like this are seldom boring, … frustrating – probably, but seldom boring.

Pop culture is leading us down a dead end road in terms of our communication skills. Watching The Real Housewives of NJ, NY, and DC snipe at unfriendly targets of opportunity, witnessing “The Situation” hook up with a friendly target of opportunity on the Jersey Shore, seeing Hardball’s Chris Matthews fling a spitball at a right wing guest, or listening to a liberal express a difference of opinion with Bill O’Reilly only elevates this bad behavior in our culture.     

On the other hand, the ability to text 60 words a minute, or fire off 200 emails before lunch does not constitute interpersonal skills or an effective exchange of ideas either.

The arena of ideas is where our cultural battle takes place. Punches are exchanged as perspectives are put on the table. Shots are landed when thoughtful ideas are accepted. Sometimes someone evens wins in the arena. But never at the expense of the opponent and always with the hope that the participants will want to come back and challenge each other again.


One Response

  1. I’m right, and everyone else is wrong. End of story.

    You gotta problem wid dat?

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