Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Maybe it's you

Recently, I was involved in a somewhat heated discussion on Facebook of a contentious political issue. Heated, but not at all disrespectful. Actually, in many ways it was a model of what a discussion should look like. Ideas were clashing, there was disagreement (why talk if you already agree?) and mutual respect.

Right at the end of the discussion, a new party jumped in and said something like "some people just don't get it." I think this person was referring to me but it doesn't matter much.

That kind of comment is, to me, the epitome of an un or anti-intellectual perspective. The comment did not articulate a POV. It did not advance an argument. It did not create a new idea. It does not have the power to inspire or change minds. It does not lead to further discussion. Instead, it attempts to shut down a discussion by unilaterally declaring an individual or a group of people as simply unfit for inclusion in any discussion of the issue. In a way, it even says that no discussion is necessary. You either "get it" or you don't. Sort of a Calvinism for ideas and discussion.

If you find yourself thinking that some folks just don't get it, and certainly before you ever say such words, you might want to pause and think a bit more. Because no matter what issue is at hand and no matter what side you take, you will find that there are smart and well-intentioned people on the other side. Some of them will be even smarter and more well-intentioned than you.

It's not that they just don't get it. It might be that they don't understand your position. If so, explain it to them. It might be that they understand perfectly well but just don't agree with you. In that case, agree to disagree.

Or, it might be that you're the one that just doesn't get it.

If you're reading this blog, I hope you have points of view. I hope you think, explore, consider. I hope you engage in robust discussion and debate. I hope you advocate on behalf of your opinions and convictions.

But please, do it in a manner that is consistent with a respect for the value of ideas and intellectual activity. The (free) exchange of ideas is all that we have to prevent us from behaving like savages fighting over a hunk of meat. When you are discussing an idea, you are not only working towards a resolution of a particular issue, you are contributing to the legacy of intellectual exchange. You will either weaken or strengthen the institution of intellectual discourse. That contribution will likely have a greater and more lasting impact on the world than the particular issue you're discussing at the moment.

Please use your gift of words wisely. (And please help me make sure that I use mine in that spirit as well.)

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