Is this the right room for an argument?
After anything of note happens in the world – especially in the event of tragedy – our media outlets become torrents of speculation, opinion, and outright lies. Social media, in turn, becomes a swamp of logical fallacy. It’s as predictable as the sunrise.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable Monday in the wake of the Orlando massacre. The very first article I read – on NPR of all places – contained a disclaimer stating that the article may contain speculation or misinformation, and that they would update it accordingly as new information was revealed.
I read that article, wondering how it qualified as responsible reporting, and then popped over to Facebook. In predictable fashion, people were drawing firm conclusions as to what had happened based on their predisposed political bent coupled with quotes from the article that, in its own admission, was probably false.
We live in the first era of mass communication, and I feel like we’re toddlers trying to scale mountains. Collectively, we have neither the tools nor the capacity to gather, sort, and make sense of the multi-faceted, contradictory, and downright inflammatory information coming our way. We’re in a downward spiral of polarization due to a collective inability to formulate an argument with any sort of fact-based backing. Our opinions are right, because we said so.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how ANY of this works.
Opinions are like assholes – everyone has one, and most of them stink.
I’ve said this before on this blog: I grew up in a debate room. That’s not to say that the debate coach changed my diapers, though she probably thought she might have to from time to time. What I mean is, within that classroom, and in the competitions and events where I participated or observed, I learned what it meant to research and extrapolate. I also learned how to gracefully accept and assimilate contradictory information when presented with solid facts.
In debate, we learned to converse with minimal intrusion of our emotions, upbringing, social or economic leanings, or personal biases. We were made to argue for opinions where we personally disagreed. We were able to intelligently understand and discuss deep issues on an intellectual level through honed research of both facts and truths.
I’d like to offer some of what I learned, and some of what I try to employ when making sense of the deluge of information that’s now at our fingertips. I know I’m certainly not perfect, and that I’m solidly a work in progress myself, but here are some of the most important lessons I learned from my years of debate that I try to carry with me daily:
- Find original sources
Yesterday, I watched a video attached to a news article. The quotes included in the article – quotes, mind you… with quotation marks and attribution to the person talking in the attached video – didn’t match what was said in the video. What was “quoted” in the article was a twisted bastardization of what was stated, written in such a manner as to create the illusion of a predisposed political bent.
When you see a quote, statistic, “official” report, or other piece of verifiable evidence, find the original source and validate the facts. Watch the video and confirm the accuracy of the reporting. Find the original report that contains the statistic. Cross-examine to see if the information has been refuted. It’s crazy how often our media misquotes videos and twists information to push an agenda.
- Context means everything
You can’t take quotes out of context in order to bend the expressed words to your will. You can’t use half of a quote or part of a statistic when the rest of the connected information negates the meaning you’re trying to derive. Once you do this, you lose all credibility. End of story.
- Verify, and then cross-verify, and then validate again
When you find a piece of information that backs up your opinion, make certain that it can be independently verified. If you can’t find corroborating evidence, then you lose footing in your argument. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but, just because you read it on the Internet, that doesn’t make it true. Seriously, that includes this article. Go research researching and back up every statement I’m making. Please.
- Fact and Truth are two separate concepts
Facts are repeatable, testable, verifiable pieces of information. Truth is entirely based on your personal leanings and experience. Obi Wan Kenobi had it right: “You’ll find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly upon our own point of view.” When you find yourself clinging to a truth in the face of overwhelming, contradictory information, ask yourself why you have to be right. What is it within you that isn’t accepting of fact?
We are predisposed to our personal truths based on our upbringing, social and economic status, political leanings, and personal experiences. That doesn’t make us right by default. When discussing hot-button topics, it’s important to understand and respect the line between our truths and the facts. It’s also imperative to understand that fact overrides truth, no matter how emotionally invested we are in our personal biases.
- Learn to argue equally for the opposing viewpoint
If you only have evidence and facts to back up your opinion, especially when it comes to legal cases and social issues, you’re only scratching the surface. If you can’t formulate a solid argument against your own viewpoint, and fully understand why people have taken an opposing view to your own, then you don’t truly understand the point that you’re trying to make. In debate, we were made to argue for apartheid. We had to defend slavery. We had to take both sides in Roe vs. Wade, regardless of where we stood on the issue. We were judged based on the strength of our evidence, and not on the solidity of our convictions.
- Don’t take facts personally
You might think that a piece of evidence you have is factual. When you discover it’s not, accept that. It’s not an attack on your character. It doesn’t diminish your intelligence. It doesn’t reflect poorly on you at all. Unless, that is, you cling to disproven or discredited evidence.
When someone contradicts you with a fact, don’t take it personally – the Internet is massive. The amount of information pouring in daily is staggering.
When we researched for speech and debate in the late ‘80s, we had libraries with books, periodicals, and microfiche. That was overwhelming enough. Anymore, it’s easy to get caught up in the information overload. Keep your mind open to new ideas, and accept new facts with grace. It really is okay to say, “I did not know that” or even (gasp) “I was wrong.” You’ll survive the experience. I promise.
- Clearly state assumptions
When formulating a fact-based argument, you cannot react in knee-jerk fashion based on your assumptions. If you’re unsure of what a person means by a word or statement, ask. If you know you’re reacting based on an assumption, state that assumption first. Allow the other person to clarify (hopefully with evidence). Many people have trouble formulating coherent sentences when flustered. State your assumption, listen to their responses, and then proceed.
Remember, just because you made an assumption doesn’t make you right. You know what they say about the word “assume”, right?
- Agree to disagree
Even with ample research, collected facts, cross-examined evidence, and strongly-backed opinions, sometimes people just disagree. That’s okay. Guess what? You can still be friends, because it’s our diversity that makes us strong. After all, if we all agreed on everything, I wouldn’t even have to write this post. And bonus points if you can read a dissenting opinion, pick from it the facts that support it, and assimilate the knowledge into your collective whole. The more people educate themselves to understand, the better off we will all become.
- Personal attack is never, ever a valid argument
This one really needs no explanation.
There are so many more nuisances to research, logic, and drawing conclusions that I could go in to. The meaning of hyperbole, how to avoid logical fallacy, the importance of historical perspective… I could go on for days. But the 9 points above are a starting point. I hope this helps!
Let me know, what did you get from this article? What would you add? How has the information age changed the way you think, act, and learn? I’d love to know your thoughts. But please, in leaving comments, keep the above points in mind… especially that last one.