It's true that we have more semistructured "Crossfire"-style debates than ever before. But much of this is rigidly preprogrammed sniping (I was once chastised by a TV producer for not interrupting other speakers more. What a failure!) Even when the sniping is downplayed, TV demands sharp sound bites, which pushes all talking heads toward more vehemence and simplemindedness. Instant certainty becomes mandatory, a delivery style many talking heads start to regret before they're even out of the studio. Where is the real debate?
In my remarks at the dinner, I talked about the birth of a "no debate" style on many campuses. When sensitivity and nonjudgmentalism are the dominant virtues, raising arguments can be perilous; you never know what unauthorized campus opinion will turn out to be a sensitivity violation. Better to keep your head down. This is particularly true now that some speech codes explicitly say that challenging another student's beliefs is forbidden.
This is yet another perverse campus trend. Arguing is crucial to education. It's a kind of intellectual roughhouse that lets students try out new ideas. E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist, sometimes tells his class at Georgetown that he intends to support the argument of whichever group in the class is in the minority. He does this because he wants his students to argue as passionately as possible without fear of intimidation by a dominant group.
In his book "The Revolt of the Elites," the late Christopher Lasch wrote that only in the course of argument do "we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn ... we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others." If we wish to be engaged in serious argument, Lasch explained, we must enter into another person's mental universe and put our own ideas at risk.
Exactly. When a friend launches an argument and your rebuttal starts to sound tinny to your own ears, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out that something's wrong -- usually that you don't really agree with the words coming out of your own mouth. Arguing can rescue us from our own half-formed opinions.