A couple of weeks ago I sat in a room with some friends as we waited to head to a party. We were an eclectic bunch with different views, experiences, and backgrounds. At first we talked idly about plans and what we had done earlier in the day, as was typical. The conversation then took a turn when one of my good friends made a subtle, but barbed remark at our President regarding health care.
Thinking the jab to be incorrect I made my disagreement clear. Quickly, a political argument evolved with some of our group joining in and others choosing to stay out. However, as the debate continued, encompassing more and more points of interest, a certain malaise crept into the backs of our minds. Collectively we thought: we need to change the topic or else someone will be offended.
Surely enough, one of my points regarding the Republican Party struck too close to home. In outrage, the friend who began the argument declared he had been “personally attacked.” Yet, my remark was meant to attack only his argument and its exact language contained nothing that would suggest I was insulting his very personality. Needless to say, the discussion ended there.
Did it have to end though? Truthfully, my anecdote is a situation we try to avoid. Yet, it also is a situation most of us have been in before. Whatever the topic, sometimes we are moved to argue for something we believe in, even if it means crossing well-defined social convention. As we step over this boundary though, we may offend someone even if a remark is not directly “personal.” The definition of the word “personal” takes a broad meaning nowadays. The “personal attack” of today can include anything from a “yo-mamma” joke to a judgment made on the weather.
Often, people are too quick to be offended by argument and unnecessarily halt discussions for what they deem to be disrespect. In my view, this is a major problem. Stopping in the middle or refusing to ponder the greatest and most difficult questions asked of us only leads to stagnation.
Of course the subjects that people avoid the most are politics and religion, but when these subjects aren’t discussed, society deprives itself from having meaningful discourses about the nature of government and what makes for a purposeful life. At the least, this lack of discourse results in conformity and maintaining the status quo. At worst, society is conditioned never to question authority.
My trip to China four years ago offered me a unique look at how society is affected by a lack of discussion. It was clear within a couple days of arriving in the city of Dalian that open discussion of politics and religion was heavily discouraged.
In the first place, finding a Chinese citizen who was concerned at all about government was very hard. This is due to the fact that the Chinese were sadly misinformed. Without a free media, the government is depicted as nearly perfect and the only controversies are fabricated by authority.
Most Chinese I met did not know of the conflicts in Tibet and no one had even heard of the infamous massacre at Tiananmen Square of 1989 that came to define the communist regime for the West. While practically everyone understood their elections weren’t free, no one protested. Without public discourse addressing these freedoms, practically everyone conformed and nothing changed.
However, I didn’t receive the impression the Chinese people would refuse change if it was presented. The radical college student in Dalian (who went by his pseudonym “Lennon”) to covertly distribute the contraband London journal The Economist and the current wave of Chinese intellectuals speaking against government limitations of freedom would tell you this.
“While there are certainly a group of people who are concerned with politics there are many Chinese who are apolitical and do not speak about politics” said Shunqi Gao ’16, a Chinese exchange student at F&M. As long as the general public is indifferent to political discussion, Chinese social freedoms will remain, for the most part, unchanged.
I am not suggesting that we will lose the freedoms that define our nation, but I think the taboo placed on politics does nothing to aid a government that is the most polarized since the Civil War, according to a study carried out this year by political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein.
Like Washington politicians, many people go into political conversations with fixed ideas. What’s more, they consume the same media and hang out with like-minded folks. Essentially, they allow their views to become an integral part of their identity and when they enter debates they are unwilling to let others’ opinions change their own. This results in people “taking it personally” and withdrawing at significant moments in argument.
My suggestion is that we throw aside the constraints that connect our ideas with our personalities. We must realize our ideas may be challenged in debate and open ourselves to other views, which may even affect our own for the better. An able advocate will “lose his/her pride” before entering an argument and allow only logic and solid evidence to influence his or her opinions.
Likewise, we should avoid ad hominem attacks on our opponent, as these are the true attacks on one’s personality. Extracting ourselves from an argument may be difficult, but it allows us to tackle issues that otherwise would be too touchy to ponder.
With a presidential election approaching, an informed electorate is crucial. However, if we don’t allow for political discussion we are accepting the polarized status quo that holds Washington in gridlock. The argument between my friends and I should never have halted. Even in a college environment with pressures to be nice and conforming, these discussions must persist or society comes out the loser.
Questions? Email Nathan at email@example.com.