In a polarized society, debate is crucial

Seeking open discourse is much better than trying to avoid and limit it.

Andrew Johnson

I sat, alone, in a bar on Friday night just waiting. I was meeting someone there for the first time, and they were running late. I was a little nervous, a little anxious, but also especially excited for this get-together.

While I wish I could say I was waiting for a date, I was actually grabbing a drink with someone more unlikely (which, for me, is already pretty unlikely) than that: an Internet commenter with opposing views. A couple of weeks prior, in a comment on one of my columns, he — perhaps rhetorically — condescendingly offered to buy me a beer. Nevertheless, I took him up on that offer, and he graciously stood by it.

He did most of the talking; I did most of the listening. He provided the typical challenges and claimed my arguments were as clichéd as I found his to be. He elaborated further on his points, and I pushed back and vice versa. We got off track but still rationalizing that these tangents were ultimately related. He gave me a thing or two to think about afterward, and I hope that I did the same. By the end of our meeting and the bottom of our mug, I’d like to think it was a time well worth both our whiles. Overall, I’m glad it worked out so we could have the conversation.

In a time where tensions seem to always be high and controversies can be just one slip of the tongue away, it’s not only easy, but almost sensible, to avoid putting yourself in a position that could result in conflict. In some ways, steering clear of potentially uncomfortable topics and clashing conversations is like passing up on the new Taco Bell Doritos taco: It’s easier on your stomach, and you don’t really doubt your decision. Yet, as you pull away from the drive-thru with whatever you safely settled on (pretend Taco Bell has such a menu item), you miss out on something that may have been messy, nasty and unpleasant at times but also an opportunity to test your previously held conceptions and misconceptions. The difference between a stimulating, and perhaps grueling, debate and the Doritos taco is that the former is healthy and good for you when compared to the latter, so make sure you get a serving.

One way that I get one is watching “Real Time with Bill Maher” every week. It’s not unusual to find myself disagreeing with Maher, and I watch “Real Time” for that very reason; it’s oddly enjoyable and useful to hear what he and his panel have to say on the issues of the week. While it was a little self-serving, in his New York Times op-ed from this week, titled “Please Stop Apologizing,” Maher and I may have stumbled onto some common ground.

In it, he discusses how “the answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not ‘make them go away forever,’” referring to the widespread obsessive crusade to purge the airwaves of Rush Limbaugh. “I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone,” he goes on to say, because he realizes discomfort is a possibility in passionate debate. Maher recognizes the value of an open and unbound discourse, one where people are free to say what they want. In doing so, he also acknowledges and admits that there are invariably consequences, whether it’s losing radio sponsors or your show on ABC, but feels everyone should be left to their own devices in that regard. If they want to gamble their financial, social, cultural or political capital on a comment, that’s their doing — after all, high risks can result in high rewards — but actively trying to silence those voices isn’t ultimately a proponent for a free and equal society. We should want to go up against the best, toughest and most thought-provoking arguments from our opponents, not suppress and stifle them, and then pick on the weaker ones.

Where Maher negates himself though is in his suggestion for a National Day of No Outrage, where he asks everyone to not always act in response to an incident or disagreement. In the same piece where he celebrates people’s rights to speak out in any way they want, he then turns around and asks they imitate the third “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey with his hands over his mouth. Sure, there may be more faux controversies than there are actual ones nowadays, but we shouldn’t encourage anyone to stay mum on anything.

Earlier in the week, I drove up to Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., just outside of St. Cloud, to see writer, columnist and author Jonah Goldberg speak (if you’re immediately repulsed by this, perhaps you need to re-read the first part of this column). In his humorous but insightful way, Goldberg discussed how whenever politicians, or anyone for that matter, say “there’s no time for argument” on a subject, what they’re really saying is, “Will you guys just shut up and agree with me on this already?”

There’s always time for argument in this country. That’s what we’re about: the constant tug-of-war between contrasting ideas and beliefs, forcing each to prove how strong their argument is in hopes of pulling the discussion to their side. People shouldn’t be treated like they’ve “said enough” on an issue, or their opinion cast aside as just time-filling fodder for the illusion of a debate. Wishing it was otherwise is not only cowardly but essentially admits an inability to persuade and therefore the apparent lack of soundness in the argument.

We need to not be so cautious in setting sail into these uncharted waters of discussion, and not with a crew that we already know we’ll agree with and nod along, because that’s ultimately just isolating yourself in a bubble of people of one mind. Don’t cop out with lines like, “Let’s agree to disagree.” You already agreed that you disagree; that’s why you started the conversation. Pursue the discussion to its appropriate extent, and take advantage of the opportunity to maybe learn something, challenge someone else and challenge yourself.

Now there may be some of you who feel differently about this, either because you’re nonconfrontational or just think I’m wrong. Maybe it’s the content, my analysis or my horrible writing. If you’re out there, I’d love to hear about it over a drink. Just don’t be late.