2016-11-21

Beyond Sit Down and Shut Up: On the need for debate and explanation in civil discourse





It seems lately that a bunch of folks from all sides want other folks to accept certain ideas and events as "facts" without explanation or debate. Trump folks want everyone to shut up and accept the election without question or protest. Progressives want folks to accept diversity without question as a social fact, and delegitimize anyone who disagrees as either ignorant or prejudiced or both. Scientists want folks to accept evolution and global climate change as fact and ignore young earth creationists and climate change deniers. Inerrantists want folks to accept a certain read of the Bible as the way Reality works without being questioned by secularism or other religions.

The truth is that this attitude is prevalent on all sides, and is both intellectually sloppy and socially lazy. If we hold free speech as a social good*, that means that no "fact" may go without the expectation of questioning, explanation, rational argument, analysis of evidence, and even protest. Not even this post. I personally think it is incredibly immature to tell others to sit down and shut up and accept your position as so superior that it is self evident you are right. If you think you are right, support it with an argument and an explanation to goes beyond simply posting and meme, and even beyond reposting someone else's article or news story. Although both memes and reposting articles may be part of an argument, they are not substitutes for it.

*This, of course, assumes the shared value of free speech. Which in turn assumes that speech-- discourse, dialogue, and debate-- can be used as a means to pursue truth and virtue. Thus, since truth and virtue are not a given and must be sought, the freedom of discussion opens the possibility of seeing truth and virtue from different perspectives. But not everyone holds these values. Some only see speech as a means of power: Social control and manipulation. This in turn seems to imply that either they think they possess the fullness of the Truth (and thus all that is left is to coerce people into accepting it), or that Truth does not exist (and thus, life is meaningless and all that matters is bending people to our will for our pleasure). Thus all the reasons I can think of for not valuing free speech lead to pretty scary social visions. Therefore I think free speech is a key social value for a healthy society, and therefore silencing tactics are antithetical to that value, and thus antithetical to a truly healthy society.

Back to civil discourse: I hold my views because I think they make the best use of the evidence I have been exposed to, and hence are better explanations than other views I disagree with. I'm happy to discuss, explain, and defend any one of these views if and when I have time (while at the same time acknowledging that there are constraints on time and other competing priorities). And I think others should have this attitude too. And it may the the 1000th time you have had to explain it, but it may be the first time someone else has heard it. If there's anything I've learned from preaching and teaching, it is that you must never tire of explaining the basics over and over and over.

I'm not offended when people question me, my views, my politics, or my religion. I expect it and welcome it. And many of the best people I know share the same attitude. I think it is a mark of intellectual adulthood to be able to compassionately and clearly discuss and defend one's ideas and ideals. It is a mark of immaturity to silence and shame others, expecting them to simply accept ideas you find self-evident. And not only that, but from a secular perspective it is a mark of a healthy society to have vigorous debate in the pursuit of free speech (as discussed above). And if one comes from the Christian perspective, this is even a clearly held Biblical virtue. After all, 1Peter 3:15 tells us: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord [i.e. Don't be afraid to hold firm spiritual and moral commitments that stem from the "Lordship" of Jesus]. Always be prepared to give an answer [Greek "apologia": A rational, evidence based response and explanation] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience [i.e. Pursue free speech in such a way as to treat every human with dignity and respect as beloved by Christ], so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

Thus, for clear social, moral, political, philosophical, and religious reasons it is paramount to engage in sustained rational discourse and debate as a necessary facet of the value of free speech. There may be occasions when free speech must be paused to pursue a greater good. If your child is stepping out into traffic one must snatch them back first, and wait for later to explain the necessity of looking both ways. And when lives are in immanent danger, one must first stand in protest, or act in compassion, to save them. And only after lives are safe, will we have the leisure to debate the justifications. But in general, free speech and reasoned discourse should be the norm, from which crisis situations are the deviation.

So instead of saying people should shut up and stop protesting, try and explain instead why things are so darn good for them that they shouldn't want to protest. And if you cannot construct an argument that makes sense, perhaps that indicates that your position needs revision.

And instead of saying that you will ignore anyone who holds an opposing view by silencing them or shaming them, try explaining your position in a new way. You just might find that you come to understand your own views in a deeper way, even if they continue to disagree with you.

And if, at long last, you simply cannot come to a common agreement, perhaps the best way to handle it is in the silence of good deeds, as you continue to work for justice, compassion, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness. It takes no words give the thirsty a drink, or feed the hungry a meal, or sit in protest against injustice, or stand between a bully and his victim.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.



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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.