If the internet is good for one thing, it’s that it’s where arguments go to die. Sadly, their death isn’t the result of some resolution or reconciliation of the sides. Rather, these arguments often actually die in that they lose all hope of ever seeing any kind of real settlement. Both (all) sides, sure of their stance, never budge, and seldom even listen for any reason other than to compose a retort to eloquently demonstrate just how right they’ve been all along.
To what end? Qui bono? These questions often hit me after hours of pounding away at someone’s argument, usually while neglecting the people who are actually in my company. Politics are fun, but religion… I’ll gladly waste all hours of the day debating this divisive topic. Does morality come from religion? Did the figure of Christ ever actually walk the globe? Does God exist? Is belief good for mankind?
Each of those questions matters. There are scenarios where the continuation of our species can waver based on an answer to one of them. These are critical issues that bleed out into all sorts of other arenas like politics, social science and so on. So why the header above: Does it really matter? Didn’t we just agree that they do, even if we disagree on the extent?
It seems as though the answer really depends on each of us and the mechanics which we’re willing to apply to the debate. Are we trolls who want to belligerently and disrespectfully insult someone’s dearly-held beliefs? (As a side note, sincerity of belief does not insulate it from critical analysis.) Do we dig in and take Ken Ham’s approach when asked what could possibly change his mind and he replied plainly, “nothing”. That isn’t debate. It’s verbal bludgeoning. It is disingenuous, at best, to approach a debate this way. I know anecdotal evidence is flimsy, but I can make this statement with confidence because I’ve been this guy SO MANY times.
When approaching an argument, there’s initially no way to know if the person you’re debating is truly interested in critical analysis or if they simply want to piously expound their holy rightness. This does become apparent rather quickly in the discussion, though. We mustn’t fall into our own self-righteous trap of assuming it’s the other guy who’s derailing the discussion. “Am I legitimately listening to and answering his/her entire questions, or am I just looking to rebut?” If all parties can’t, at least, try to make the answer to that question “yes”, everyone has to ask “Does it really matter?” Why continue to pound away at one another? Is there satisfaction in hearing ourselves tell ourselves what we already believe? Because if who you’re debating isn’t somewhat committed to an honest discussion, that’s all you’re doing. This lesson took me YEARS to learn.
Let’s get a bit more specific
So this is where the focus takes a turn from the general to the more pointed. With everything we’ve discussed so far, let’s consider this: if I don’t believe in your God and you do sincerely believe in one (or the reverse of this, for that matter), does it matter? Is there a practical matter that is impacted by this division?
Now before we delve into that, I acknowledge there are things we will do differently. You may go to church on Sunday, I don’t. But other than the allocation of our time, where is the division? You may put a nativity out at Christmas, I won’t. Other than decorations of our own personal lawns, where is the division? You may vote for a candidate because of his faith, I not so much. Each of our votes still counts the same, right? There are some things that each of us will support and feel passionately about that the other side will obviously, almost necessarily, oppose.
I’ve always maintained that we don’t choose our beliefs. There is simply no way I can choose to believe Florida has more land area than Alaska. There is no way you can choose to believe the earth is the center of our solar system, let alone the universe. Our intellect processes information and draws conclusions from that info. This is a must. How flimsy our intellect would be if it were plug-and-play, being able to insert any notion, regardless of the footing it stands on.
I don’t hold out that this means beliefs can’t be influenced. As someone who enthusiastically supported a fundamentalist Christian religion just half a decade ago, I can attest that beliefs can be altered, sometimes in significant ways. However, there was no way someone could have stood on my head and forced this. The path was my own, even if the influences were external. Even if we don’t choose our beliefs, it seems our ego needs to believe we choose our beliefs.
So if our beliefs aren’t chosen and are almost always unalterable by force, is it wise, reasonable or beneficial to put up a wall between ourselves and others due to beliefs? Does it matter? (Of course, the caveat to this is if these beliefs are literally harmful). Where is the difference between calling a gay person “unnatural”and labeling a Southern Baptist “dumb”? Neither of those things are true and both are a form of discrimination. I disagree with a fundamentalist who claims humanity has been on the globe just six millennia. That doesn’t mean it’s my place to name call. Make no mistake, that statement is subject to analysis and criticism. But that doesn’t mean that individual chose that belief any more than I choose to disbelieve it.
Where does that leave us? Does it matter? Should we just never discuss important matters because we’re likely to disagree on them and because we didn’t choose our beliefs? Clearly not. Our health and advancement as a species depend not only on cooperation, but on each of us refining our beliefs through debate and criticism. This increases the quality of our collective beliefs as our individual beliefs are refined. This may feel like I’m talking in circles. It doesn’t matter… it matters.
The “matter” lies in the motivation of the participants, the forum in which it’s discussed (though a conversation between two friends can “matter”), and the intellectual honesty each party can display. The pissing contests that are so common on Facebook, YouTube and myriad internet forums are rarely productive. Feelings are often hurt, defriending occurs, but seldom does anyone walk away with any change in viewpoint or approach.
Most times we know this before we ever engage in these fights. After all, that’s all these “discussions” ever are. But they’re so tasty, so irresistible, and so rarely satisfying that we keep engaging, hoping the next one will have some of that satisfaction previously missing. But after each engagement, how would anyone involved answer the question, “did that matter?” It’s unlikely anyone left with a good taste in their mouth.
These internet scuffles do nothing to produce any sort of unity or compromise, the essence of a civilized culture. Instead, they seem to cement the misconceptions, stereotypes and occasional misgivings that were already held. If any of us wants to legitimately be a part of the solution and not the problem, a change in approach must be made.
The first way to be a part of a healthy debate is to be quick to identify and walk away from the many toxic ones. This can be hard, it takes usually takes humility and self control. We feel the need to defend the virtue and legitimacy of our viewpoints. But once we see that the other side has no interest in an actual exchange, what benefit comes from sticking around? This can be difficult since so often we’re actually baited into the argument by people just looking for a fight. The sooner we see that they’re actually arguing with themselves more than anyone else, the easier it will be to walk away.
Next, it’s up to us to be everything we want our dance partner to be. If we want patience, honesty and a willingness to answer questions without red herrings or ad hominem attacks, we absolutely have to be these things ourselves. This can mean we have to endure being placated, spoken down to, spoken over or occasionally insulted. However, as long as we believe our opponent is still working in the bounds of productive debate and they’re not being mean-spirited, there is still hope for progress.
What if we listened to the entire question before we bulldoze our opponent with our tidal wave of syllables? What if we stop picking apart their syntax, hoping to gain an edge, and honestly acknowledge what they’re driving at? The more empathy we can muster, the more we can entertain a thought even if we disagree with it, the closer we get to a place where we can have difference without division. If our opponent meets us in this place of honest exchange, we start to find that it begins to matter.
Discussions that occur in this way become building blocks. The foundation we build could slowly mean that we don’t have a society divided by Tea Party-esque use of religion to divide and serve a larger agenda. It could lead to the “new atheist” movement being more empathetic of religious traditions. Hopefully we can all learn the difference between having personal religious beliefs, icons, habits, etc., and legislating our beliefs into the lives of our neighbors. And maybe, just maybe, the internet can be a place where arguments go to thrive. Because if we can be honest and empathetic, our differences will only make us stronger. We will see that they should be valued not insulted because they really do matter.
PS – You may need to show me this post the next time I get sucked into a debate that doesn’t matter. 🙂