Back when I was in college, I had a required philosophy class. It was a large lecture class, held in an auditorium where the professor spoke from a lectern with a microphone.
The professor was a prominent scholar who probably saw himself as someone in a direct line from Socrates. His method of instruction was to call on some student at random, ask a question, allow the student to speak a couple of sentences, seize on a minor error or poorly chosen word before the student could finish making their point, and proceed to demonstrate how stupid the student was.
Since he had a mike and the student did not, this was very easy for him to do.
Most of the students in the class were sophomores. We were bright – this was an honors class – but we certainly didn’t know the subject matter as well as he did nor did we have his level of experience in academic discourse.
And nobody got much experience with it in that class. On many occasions, a student was getting at something important, but not yet able to say it all that well. That is, the person had clearly done the reading and thought about the subject and was making a serious effort to say something useful.
But the professor never let them finish, never let the real point get made. He just used them as props so he could show off how much smarter he was than everyone else in the room.
In other words, he was a bully.
It’s probably obvious that I despised the man and considered him a terrible teacher. But that’s not why I’m writing about him.
I’m using him as an example of what’s wrong with public discourse in the U.S. today. (Maybe in the world, but I’m going to stick to what I know best here.) Look at the farces presented as political debates and congressional hearings, not to mention dialogues on Facebook and Twitter. So many games of gotcha, so many efforts to misconstrue points, to deliberately misunderstand, to attack something that wasn’t the point in the first place.
So many efforts to avoid understanding what a person was actually trying to say.
Now I know how to do this kind of argument. I went to law school. I’ve tried cases before a jury. The whole point of cross examination is to get a witness for the other party to sound stupid and wrong. Twisting the meaning of their words is one way to do it.
For that matter, I learned to do it in high school debate. It’s an art, restating someone’s argument so that it sounds wrong without actually saying something that is blatantly not true.
But while it can be useful for winning a trial or a competition, it is not a great way for getting at the truth. No one learns anything when people argue this way.
Even on social media people are focused more on winning than they are on learning something. Since the posts tend to be short, they’re easy to misconstrue. And the attackers get upset when others refuse to debate them because they’re playing gotcha games and twisting words.
This goes on a lot in politics, but I’m not making a plea for civil discourse on the U.S. political front. That’s not a remote possibility until we get the right wing extremists out of the picture, because they don’t argue in anything approaching good faith.
I’m more concerned with changing the conversation in places where things do start from a place of good faith. We see a lot of gotcha games in reports on science and academic studies. And there’s a lot of it when women call out sexual harassment or Black people give examples of racism.
We need to do a better job of listening, of making sure we get the person’s idea, instead of looking for some flaw in their statement that we can use to undermine them while missing the true point.
Of course it’s legitimate to disagree. But people need to disagree with the substance of what the person is saying rather than use some minor point to derail the argument.
I want folks to stop trying to win and instead try to have a rational discussion of the real issues. We all might learn something.
I didn’t learn a damn thing in my philosophy class. Neither did the professor.