Opinion | The lost art of the argument

SHOUTING MATCH: Australians are currently unable to have a balanced, rational debate without it descending into insults and contradiction.
SHOUTING MATCH: Australians are currently unable to have a balanced, rational debate without it descending into insults and contradiction.

These days it is hard to have a rational discussion that abides by widely agreed rules like being truthful, respectful of others’ opinions, and reasonable.

As the US writer Jessa Crispin pointed out last year, “What passes for debate now is geared towards destruction. That’s why we’re going round in circles. No one develops their thinking. You have to learn to have an argument, to encounter a different opinion and then to figure out how to argue against it rather than just telling the other person to shut up. It’s about rhetoric, logic, detachment.”

How have we got to this, in a country with 150 years of universal public education?

We often blame the Internet and social media which have created forums for people to express unmediated, evidence-free opinions, one cancelling out the other.

Older media—newspapers, radio, television—are also increasingly driven by celebrity, sensation and scandal and the 24-hour news cycle.

Rational discussion is also undermined by our political culture, which is shaped by conflict between politicians and parties, and by gossip about potential leadership challenges, and more recently in Australia, the private lives of politicians.

Deeper, more insidious factors also contribute to the destruction of discussion. 

Universities are no longer places fostering dispassionate enquiry and critical thinking, but businesses competing for market share, seeing students as clients who need to be satisfied with the product they are buying.

Students, raised by helicopter parents, overly-praised for every achievement, conscious that they or their parents are paying a lot of money for their education, expect, and often demand, good grades. More insidiously, this generation of students often believes that they know as much as their teachers.

Broader cultural trends and our own biology contribute to ‘confirmation bias’, our tendency to search for information that supports our existing beliefs.  We also tend to believe that we are smarter than we are. Cornell University researchers found that the less competent people are, the more certain they are of their expertise and intelligence. 

These factors work together to foster destructive argument and undermine constructive decision-making. This partly explains the paralysis in Australian politics over the past decade. We have become incapable of tackling challenges vital to our future, such as how to diversify our economy or improve education or move to sustainable water and energy use.

Getting out of this hole is a huge, complex challenge.  A starting point is for citizens to seek out better sources of information.

For example, Jenny Brockie’s Insight program on SBS each week skilfully combines expert contributions and audience participation to foster deeper understanding of thorny social issues. Locally, the Newcastle Writers Festival, Newcastle University public lectures and U3A do the same. 

Also in our city, the Newcastle Institute has for 12 years hosted monthly public forums on vital policy issues. In 2018 there will be sessions on complex but resolvable policy questions related to the economy, education, health, women and power, urban planning, housing and Indigenous policy.

Ross Gittins will speak at the Newcastle Institute, Souths Leagues Club Merewether, Wednesday March 14 6pm-7.30pm

Griff Foley is a Newcastle Institute committee member. He was formerly Associate Professor of Adult Education at UTS.