A day after the State of the Union address has the internet lit up. Everyone has an opinion, and many of them want to state it. Topics range from the substance of the address to how it was presented and ultimately how it is received in the nation given a varying degree of relevance.
It’s entirely possible to go through this point by point and make some kind of alternative statement about the state of the union as I see it. But that seems to miss the main point. Our nation is fractured and unfocused. Why? Before we debate this topic, it seems reasonable to go back to the main purpose of debate in the first place, a fundamental skill necessary for an open, free, and democratic society.
The purpose of debate is to learn.
Debate, as we have come to know it in the western world, was given a place of prominence in the Athenian world circa 2,500 years ago. It was generally believed that if you talk about something long enough, with enough skill, you will eventually uncover logical fallacies or assumptions and thus arrive at the truth.
This is the essence of the Socratic Method of teaching, where student and master start on a nearly equal footing – at least rhetorically. The role of teacher is more as a guide to the conversation, and the title is essentially earned by the masterful use of logic and organization.
Athens famously built a political system on this principle, which we still have in use today. Leadership is earned and more importantly consensus is built through a process by which everyone eventually has the same view of what is true and what a reasonable course of action might be. In this application, however, the purpose essentially remains that of learning – learning the other side, your own side’s weakness, and together learning the truth.
In our world today, we have lost this basic underpinning of democracy.
Debates are to be “won” in America today. The exact purpose of “winning” is very unclear most of the time, but at a governmental level it is for the exercise of policy and power. Outside of that, it is utterly pointless. We were given a system that requires consensus in order to accomplish anything, and yet the process of developing consensus has been largely discarded. Indeed, one of the great tools of consensus making, compromise, is often expressed as a synonym for weakness and surrender.
Democratically elected representatives from diverse regional, cultural, ethnic, gender, and other life experiences should be attempting to build a greater understanding of each other. Each has something to teach from their own unique perspective. Instead, each attempts to dominate the other for the purpose of getting their way. Rhetoric is simple a tool of warfare, not learning, in such a situation.
You may well ask what the purpose is of this particular piece on the nature of debate itself in that light.
My only hope has always been to be of some kind of service to our changing world. I see it falling apart and largely incapable of moving forward to a world that genuinely provides happiness and keeps bellies full. To that end, I have come to believe that I have something to teach the world. This is presented as one side of a Socratic debate for the purpose of letting it be ripped apart, if possible.
So have at it. Please.
I put it to you today that democracy is failing in a rapidly changing situation, made ever more complex by greater interdependence over a large number of people, because we have lost our ability to learn from each other. If that statement is wrong, please let me know how. This perspective can then be modified to be more accurate, or possibly dropped if it is unfixable.
That is how debate is supposed to work. It is about learning, first and foremost. And it is that capacity to learn and develop consensus that makes a democracy work. Without it, the state of our union is that it is failing at a fundamental level.
It strikes me that one issue that arises from our current inability to debate/discuss, is that people see the other side as “all wrong” while their side is “all right.” Looking at sports for a moment, it used to be that a terrific play by an opposing team member would be applauded–for the show of athletic ability–whereas now only great plays by your own team are appreciated. This type of mentality is destroying our democracy.
That’s exactly right. And it is all about winning.
Several observations. First regarding race.The following commentary makes racial barriers a foolish disgrace. Just like religious pundits and power brokers who use small differences in belief patterns to polarize their constituents to the point of making war, so do politicians exploit racial differences. Sad.
1.The human gene pool happens to be racially insensitive, is not biased and is thus why we generically tend to refer to all humans on the planet as being part of the “Human Race.”
It is also why we can interbreed with each other. White, red, yellow and black.
At the genetic level all human beings differ from one another by a total of 0.1% of their total DNA make up, meaning by only a total of 30 genes out of 3 billion DNA base pairs and 23,000 coding gene sequences. This variation expresses itself in minor racial differences such as skin color, epicanthic eye folds, hair color and texture, eye color and all the very few other superficial differences that ultimately lead us as racial subgroups to single these things out for targeted hatred.
We are all 99.9% purely the same.
Better than Ivory soap.
But it is that 0.1% that in making us a little different, one from the next, is all that accounts for 100% of all our cultural, our religious, and our racial hatreds.
2.Most mammalian systems have hierarchies. Hierarchies insure social order and preservation of the “herd.” Take your pick: Humans, the great apes, Orcas, wolves, lions etc. Each system has alpha males and females, mid level group members, runts and scapegoats.
Most mammals are also highly territorial and tend to be very aggressive when necessity demands exploiting other groups of same species that threaten their well-being. For example Baboon troops will mercilessly attack other troops if they need to expand their domains. Human societies operate on the same principles, a factor that explains things from international wars down to the smaller levels of national and local politics, or even neighbors not getting along with each other.
3. As a species we face more serious issues than petty political squabbles or climate change. Our biggest enemies are overpopulation, loss of natural habitat, fragmentation of habitat, and pollution. We are now in the 6th major earth extinction event that began about 10,000 years ago with the rise of human exploitative activity. Some scientists believe that the tipping point will be a world population of 10 billion people, at which time world resources will have been hopeless exhausted. The result will be mass starvation and social anarchy. A study was done decades ago on the change in rat behavior as population densities increased. It is well worth taking into consideration in attempting to explain how and why we have the problems we are facing in our own modern societies. At some point these issues may not be reparable. It won’t matter what your politics happen to be
I think we need a national project to bind us together again. No idea what that might be, but we need it.