October 21, 2014

OPINION: Debate unfashionable in age of sound bytes

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Gardner News in October 2004.

My dad used to pride himself on being able to debate any issue.
A self-educated man, he would read anything, and once a subject caught his interest, he devoured it.

When involved in a discussion, dad would become very animated, stabbing the air with his index finger to make his point; sometimes – when his opponent made a particularly grievous comment – he’d jump from his chair with arms outstretched and look heavenward before moving in for the kill.

Nothing was off limits to dad’s debates: politics, religon, the economy, evenwhy the price of eggs was too low or high.

The object of a debate, my dad always said, wasn’t necessarily to win – that was like the icing on a cake – but rather to encourage thought and to learn.

More than a few times I saw my dad pause, stroke his chin and say, “You know, I never thought it it like that.” And then he’d hit the books.
I used to get furious with my dad during debates. No statement could be made and accepted at face value, and it didn’t count to say “everybody knows that” because he would want a list of who ‘everybody” was and where they got their information.

More than once I stamped my feet and slammed out of the room, believing I was right and my father was uninformed and too stubborn to change his mind.

He would always holler out after me, “When you close your mind and get mad, you lose.”

I’ve thought about dad a lot lately.

Debate has fallen out of fashion. There has been a silencing of discussion across the country.

Rather than arguing ideas or discussing philosphy, debates are polarized into self-righteous closed minds, name calling and politically correct hand wringing.

Disagree with someone these days and you’re apt to be labelled – liberal, conservative, troublemaker.

Labeling ends discussions; it doesn’t encourage them, but maybe that’s the point.

It’s easier to mouth the words of team-speak than to bolster your beliefs with knowledge.

And what discussion there is now is usually limited to 30 second sound bytes, said with a voice of wisdom. “Three strikes you’re out.” “They played the race card.” “Do the crime, do the time.”  “It’s the law.”  “But everybody else is.”
Everytime I hear someone mindlessly invoke a cliche, I think of the Stepford Wives; robots mechanically going thru the day with no ability to think on their own.

I am my father’s daughter.

More than once when someone has looked at me solemnly and intoned, “It takes a village to raise a child,” I’ve asked, “Who’s in this village and what are their morals, because I don’t like the values I see; I’d rather accept the responsibility and raise my own child, thank you.”

My reply is usually met with surprise, silence,or a polite Stepford nod, although sometimes people get angry that I have broke from the politically correct ranks of team-speak.

Team thinking spread through the country about the same time Oprah convinced us we’re all victims.

When it takes a team of seven, plus a consultant, to figure out how to screw in a light bulb, nobody has to accept responsibility because the electricity didn’t get turned on.?

A little debate, an exchange of ideas, a bolstering of knowledge, can be good for the team. Maybe then everybody won’t be sitting in the dark wondeirng why the lights didn’t come on.

My favorite cliche? “A good mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

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