(Opinion) Debate

All representatives of their respective organizations settle down and prepare as the debate begins at Haymarket Theatre, Feb. 20, 2018.

Disagreement has always been a part of my life. In my household, debate was always encouraged, and most dinnertime conversations revolved around current events — many of them controversial in nature. My parents and I would spend hours trying to convince one another to agree with a certain stance, and though I was sometimes left frustrated, we never let our harmless arguing devolve into yelling or personal attacks.

Like many other kids, the first Golden Rule I learned was to treat others the way I would want to be treated. Because so much of my family’s conversation centered around politics, my parents made very clear that in my house, I was never to conduct myself in a disrespectful manner during debates. My mother liked to underline this policy with a story from her own childhood. When my mother was in sixth grade, she met a boy named Allen. My mother and Allen disagreed on one fundamental thing — my mother, an Episcopalian, believed that God had a hand in the creation of Earth. Allen, an atheist, thought it all came down to science.

My mother came home and complained to her mother about her disagreement with Allen. Much to my mother’s surprise, however, her mom didn’t sympathize or tell her that Allen must be wrong — instead, my grandmother instructed her to have lunch with Allen the next day, talk about their differences of opinion, and report back to her. Knowing she had no other option, my mother did just as my grandmother had asked, and the outcome shocked her. As it turned out, she and Allen actually had more in common than either of them had initially believed, and by the end of their lunch together, they were even able to respectfully disagree on the handful of issues on which they couldn’t reach a middle ground.

Unfortunately, modern-day debates have seemingly devolved into utter verbal warfare. Dare to have a differing opinion, and you’re at risk of being dubbed any of a vast array of insults, ranging from “racist” to “scum.” When did we lose the ability to disagree with one another respectfully? More importantly, why do we think that this is a viable strategy for debate?

We’ve seen this from both sides in recent years. In March, Maine Republican House candidate Leslie Gibson was forced to drop out of the race after referring to Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez as a “skinhead lesbian.” On Oct. 11, liberal talk show host Chelsea Handler faced major backlash for implying that the entire Republican party was in the closet on National Coming Out Day. President Donald Trump sends out daily Twitter insults to his millions of followers, and his opponents lob back acidic retorts by the thousands. The normalization of this petty behavior is disturbing and discouraging.

In a debate, the moment you resort to name-calling, insulting or refusing to listen, you’ve lost. If your argument is so close to being torn apart that you must throw your opponent off by mocking them, you’re fighting a losing battle. Once you’ve revealed just how emotionally affected you are by the topic you’re discussing, your opposition can use that to get at you, and there’s no reason to give them the chance.

Sadly, our society has forgotten this. Political parties have become so polarized that they can barely work together in Congress, and the few moderates who are willing to work across the aisle are part of a dying breed. The recent Brett Kavanaugh hearing that quickly deteriorated into personal attacks on Kavanaugh himself, Christine Blasey Ford and the senators questioning her serves as just one of many disturbing examples of this trend. Pro-Trump groups and anti-fascists can no longer just disagree — they have to beat each other in the streets. Even churches aren’t safe — just look at the case of All Souls Church, Unitarian, which fired a pastor after a management issue and was promptly labeled as racist.

We cannot continue on in this way. If we allow ourselves to tear each other apart rather than encourage thoughtful discussion and constructive criticism, our country will only become more divided. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, the political gap between Republicans and Democrats has widened substantially since 1994 and shows no signs of narrowing — particularly when it comes to issues like immigration, race and government aid. However, a 2012 study headed by Stanford political science professor Shanto Iyengar suggests that the gap isn’t because of clashing ideology, but rather because of how members of a party feel about the opposition. Iyengar’s team found that since the 1960s, those who identified as Democratic or Republican had experienced dramatic increases in feelings of negativity toward members of the opposing party.

Times are already hard enough. Our country is facing problems it has never encountered before, like the imminent climate change crisis, the millions of dollars in Social Security benefits we soon won’t be able to pay for and sky-high student loans that 1 out of 5 Americans are unable to repay. Now more than ever, we need to form a united front to work together to deal with these issues, because they won’t wait for us to get our act together.

If we disagree with one another, fine — but let’s not resort to personal attacks. If we want to win arguments, we must rely on logic and factual evidence, not accusations of stupidity or racism. Belligerence and aggression will only further divide a nation that cannot afford to become more polarized.

Debates are a healthy part of political involvement, and if both parties involved maintain a respectful tone, they can be an excellent way to further explore your own values and political beliefs. Just keep the Golden Rule in mind, and who knows? Maybe you’ll win.

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