Okay, maybe not dead but it’s certainly terminal and what’s left of it appears to be languishing in a rarefied hospice somewhere, out of sight and mind of the masses. What passes for intellectual debate these days is often no more than a schoolyard scrap, with each side slinging barbs at the other while their mates stand behind them shouting out encouragement (think parliamentary Question Period and you’ll know what I mean). And even that’s only when someone actually bothers to engage an opposing opinion.
Most, it seems, take a more juvenile approach. Consider, for example, a (now ex-) Facebook acquaintance who, on his FB page, heralded the latest Call of Duty war game, applauding its popularity and financial success, and suggesting we Canadians make more of them. In response I directed him to my blog post about this very issue; he responded by de-friending me and then slagged me off believing, erroneously, that this was now without my knowledge. Unfortunately, FB continued to send me updates of the thread, so his cowardice and passive-aggression was revealed via email. Rather than engage in an intelligent debate about the issue, he elected for public mud-slinging, and did so with the added expectation that he wouldn’t be called to task for his adolescent behaviour.
This response saddens me. I remember as a child family dinners that resembled debate halls, and the excitement I experienced later in university where, for the most part, one was expected to embrace rigorous dissent. There was one philosophy class in particular, Contemporary Issues, in which I had the privilege of witnessing my brilliant and eccentric professor eviscerate a student’s homophobic stance with a measured and deceptively respectful series of questions. I, who tend to be far too passionate in debate, watched in awe and made mental notes on his technique, which I often try to emulate though usually not successfully (a leopard can’t change her spots, I suppose).
Alex Kidd, another FB friend, summed up the current malaise quite well: “Challenging someone to think can be viewed as aggressive. People are not comfortable being challenged and don’t know how to respond. So they argue (which is different than debate) or they ‘slink off.’”
How very sad. What fun and rigour is there in preaching to the choir? Or in being a sycophant? If we surround ourselves only with like-minded souls, our world will quickly become very small indeed — and our minds with it.