I don’t know why I bother reading comments. Not that the irrational ejaculations to my recent piece on The Drum about conservatism and climate change do anything but support my argument that many people judge first and ask question later.
But if there’s one thing that shines through from trawling comments is that the quality of discourse today is devilishly poor.
It’s not that I’m surprised that uninformed people pontificate as if they’re experts; that they presume to pigeon hole someone else, and subsequently dismiss them, on the basis of but a few words; that many take solace in their belief that they’re obviously the only intelligent one in the room, and those who disagree with them are clearly stupid; that the employment of fallacies is seen to be signal of wit; that reason and evidence feature so seldom in any expression of disagreement; that black and white trumps shades of grey.
I’m not surprised at all. But I am disappointed that we, as a culture, don’t consider these things to be heinously embarrassing transgressions of the norms of public discourse.
We’re confronting a sizable list of dilemmas facing humanity today. Yet our public discourse is so poisonous, so divisive, so destructive that we’re lucky anyone makes progress in their thinking at all.
We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard of reason and conversation. We ought to consider fallacies to be faux pas. We ought to stop anyone who asserts without argument. We ought to be mortified if we are to let our irrational proclivities burst through the veil of reason.
That’s not to say everyone must be rational all the time. Only that we should not so readily forgive irrationality.
That so many believe ‘freedom of speech’ means ‘I have a right to say whatever tripe I believe whether it’s rational or not’ is not going to get us very far.
If people agree to hurl insults at each other, let them. But if we want to engage in a dialogue about serious questions, then we ought to be held to the base standards of rational discourse.
It begins with respect for all interlocutors, moves through to presenting thoughts backed by evidence and structured as an argument, tempered by an acknowledgement that we might be wrong, and that if proven so, we’re obliged to change our mind, and finished with humility.
Maybe I’m unrealistically optimistic or naive to believe the level of discourse can be improved. But I think it can.
At the very least it’ll help distinguish those who are serious about finding answers to tough questions, and those bile-charged individuals who are least qualified to provide solutions to the world’s toughest problems. We may never stop the zealots of unreason from having a voice, but we can at least diminish the import of their contributions, marginalise them until they’re forced to play by the rules of rational discourse or be struck mute by those with power to change the world.
It’ll take a while, but it has to begin somewhere. And if enough people adhere to the base standards of rational discourse, and politely embarrass those who don’t, and in doing so show that progress can be made on tough issues, then things might start to change. I’d like to see that happen.