Is civilized debate dead in America?

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comApril 3, 2013 

I'm a huge fan of the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. "Fanboy" would probably be a more accurate term.

The scribe who made his name with the play-turned-classic film "A Few Good Men," and later wrote the cult classic "Sports Night," "The West Wing," and "The Social Network," for which he won an Oscar, is my favorite writer.

Sorkin, not unlike iconic film director Frank Capra, imagines the world not as it is but as it should be.

And of the many epic and memorable lines Sorkin has written, lines I can recite on command, few resonate more than a speech he wrote for President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, in the 1995 drama, "The American President."

Sorkin wrote, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."

Nearly two decades later, that sentiment seems particularly lost on us, having put rationalized discussion and well-reasoned debate on the endangered species list.

Instead, we are treated to shouting matches between immovable parties, unwilling -- and perhaps intellectually unable -- to concede cogent points and acknowledge salient arguments, even those with which we disagree.

The erosion of civil debate in American society is everywhere. Politics, sports, you name it. We are the Wedge Issue Generation.

The art of division has been perfected and was perhaps created by cable news networks with ads to sell, hours of airtime to fill, but little to contribute to the greater dialogue about how to solve our society's most pressing problems. They are more interested in keeping us agitated than bringing us together.

And, like most things, the emergence of not-so-fair-or-balanced media outlets was an issue of supply and demand.

A large portion of Americans want and seem content to live in an echo chamber, getting the majority of their information from pundits to the left and right of center who share the viewer's previously held beliefs about this country, what's wrong with it and how best to fix it.

American debate, if you can call it that, often resorts to name-calling, and we're all too quick to praise those who agree with us as geniuses or soothsayers and even quicker to cast aside those who do not as idiots or morons.

Oddly enough, it is social media that is likely to bring us back to a time when we considered the merits of opposing arguments and, if necessary, challenging them in a manner that befits a society built on the notion that debate is vital.

According to a study last year from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, social media is doing its best to shatter the walls of the echo chamber, forcing people to acknowledge and *gasp* respect the opinions of their friends, acquaintances and distant relatives. Yes, even if those opinions are divergent from their own.

Of those sampled, 73 percent of these social media users "only sometimes" agree or never agree with their friends' political postings and when they do disagree, 66 percent showed some self-restraint and ignored the post. Twenty-eight percent said they usually respond with comments or posts of their own, and 5 percent said it depends on the circumstances.

But social media, as anyone who uses Facebook knows, is not Utopia. The Pew study showed 9 percent of users had blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because they posted something about politics or issues that they disagreed with or found offensive.

That statistic notwithstanding, social media may still be our best shot at restoring some civility to the American discourse because it can humanize polarizing issues and positions. Facebook can help us realize that those who cable news tries to vilify or demonize as having radical agendas are actually our well-meaning cousins, friends and acquaintances.

Without debate, we have little chance of achieving real progress, but toxic debate, the kind that seems to have permeated our culture, will only continue to drive us apart.

This week, in honor of debate, a playlist comprising eight great songs about conflict, discourse and debate.

Don't argue with me about this.

  • The Lone Bellow, "Teach Me to Know"-- Someone admitting they don't know something? Rare in this day and age.

  • Neon Trees, "Everybody Talks" -- No, really everybody talks, regardless of whether they know what they're talking about.

  • Lola Ray, "The Way We Argue" -- Right now? Not well as you've just read.

  • Bahamas, "Caught Me Thinkin'" -- Something rarely uttered.

  • Jens Lekman, "An Argument With Myself" -- A tough one to win.

  • Surfer Blood, "Take It Easy" -- Seriously.

  • The Shins, "So Says I" -- What everyone seems to be saying these days.

  • The Neighbourhood, "Let It Go" -- See something annoying on Facebook? Let it go.


  • Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

    FOR MORE PATRICK DONOHUE COLUMNS

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    "Another whiny 'I'm getting older' column from the 20-something crowd? Not exactly"

    "'Risky Business,' 'Pulp Fiction' would be nothing without music supervisors"

    "Set the mood for a dinner party with Punch Brothers and Feist"

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