By Aneesh Karuppur (VI)
A few weeks ago, during a Morning Meeting announcement, Pingry laid out some preliminary norms for conduct during the election season. The main takeaway might have been the emphasis on civility and respectful discourse, goals to which we can all agree are admirable.
However, more subtly, was the emphasis on debate as such a form of discourse. At first glance, this recommendation to debate civilly fits with Pingry’s ethos: from the Harkness table to lab research, Pingry emphasizes discussion and lively verbal argumentation of ideas. Yet, in this election cycle, I fear that the push to debate civilly will not be carried out in the manner we respect in our classrooms.
Books and biological organisms are, at the end of the day, objects that we extract knowledge from and then discard, metaphorically and physically. When reading, we develop an appreciation for what is being said rather than the exact edition and copy of the book in hand; when performing research, methodical data collection supersedes consideration of the procedures and inputs. The attachment to a story or discovery is more about the concept than the physical means to attain it.
As much as I would like to say that our political discourse can be treated in the same manner – that is, filtering out the substance from the delivery method – the two have become inseparable components of a toxic political rhetoric. We center our debates around candidates and labels rather than political substance, as it is easier to be attached to a person and a motto rather than some technical policy proposal. When we debate verbally, important policies get lost in an emotional connection to a candidate or ideal. Over the past few years, the shared values and proposals of a group have shifted drastically, chasing after demagogues rather than logical consideration.
So, I suggest that we stop debating in person. The oral argument is no longer a useful tool of common political debate until the arguer’s attachment to affiliations and politicians can be removed. Instead, focus on reading fully formed written communication that clearly articulates a vision. Moreover, focus on reading articles that vehemently disagree with one’s point of view.
In essays and articles, there are no interruptions and no need for mute buttons. If there is an insult, it is addressed silently by the reader and not by the other side in a vicious act of reciprocity. Perhaps most importantly, the process of explaining a position on paper forces the author to have a detailed and thorough set of arguments. It is easy to ascertain a good written argument from a poor one because the reader has time to process the link between data and conclusions.
But take this a step further: it’s not enough to simply read political essays and shut the laptop and move on. I have personally gained the most value from reading perspectives I disagree so strongly with that there are hardly any common points between my ideology and the author’s. There is a difference between reading a moderate piece of writing and so-called radical one; I urge the reader to err on the side of the latter. A moderate viewpoint can always concede some points to one’s side; an extreme one cannot concede because it fundamentally disagrees with what one believes. Thus, the aforementioned detailed and thorough arguments are fully expounded upon and crafted to target counterarguments.
It is important here to draw the distinction between extreme written viewpoints and extreme solutions. A compromise need not be a winner-take-all situation, as that defeats the purpose of a consensus agreement. The extreme viewpoint ought to be incorporated into the discussion of such an agreement because it pushes one to defend the most important parts of their ideology; they must acknowledge the points where the other side has the logical advantage – a moderate solution, if you will.
As elections and political events come and go, society can break the habit of increasingly aggressive rhetoric if we step back from the emotional feelings and attachments of arguing; instead, we must lean into thoughtful and peaceful expression of the written word. Reading subdues visceral reactions because the author – the opponent, the adversary, the antagonist, the enemy – cannot hear the reader’s cries of frustrations and desires to erupt. Instead, there is just enough room for a controlled and introspective release of steam.
In a political world characterized by anger, perhaps the time and space provided by written arguments can assuage the wounds driven by verbal ones.