It is commonplace in this post-modern age to bemoan the decline of civil society.
Of course, the older generations have always claimed that society is not as civil as it once was. But researchers, most notably the unparalleled Robert Putnam, have shown that today this complaint is not merely nostalgia. For once, your grandparents are right.
However, even more dangerous to our community is the fact that just as we have become less civil in some ways, we have become simultaneously far more so in others.
Specifically, it seems that the free-flowing exchange of ideas has become a taboo in our society.
In a recent discussion online, I found myself in the minority of opinion. I questioned the arguments that other people made, and I made some of my own. I was chastised, and I tried to explain that I was simply interested in learning in finding out what was right.
I was told that "intelligent" people don't like to argue and I should "play nice."
I want to be clear: I had not called anyone any names. I did not say anyone was stupid for believing what they believed. I simply evaluated arguments and suggested what I thought they proved and did not prove.
Yet, I was told I was mean because I took someone else's statements seriously enough to really consider them. I was told smart people don't like the opinions they suggest to be questioned. I realized that the other people in the discussion had very different expectations than I expectations that have become the standard in our society today.
I was taught something quite different. I went to a Quaker school for college, and they had a saying: Debate the point, not the person. We were taught that discussions, arguments, or debates call them what you will were meant to be productive. You might take a stance for the conversation, but it wasn't about being right yourself, it was about all of you finding the correct answer eventually.
For me, it jived well with my Episcopalian upbringing. Episcopalians believe in an absolute truth, but they do not believe that they are necessarily in full possession of it.
In that context, rigorous discussion is to be sought, not avoided. And such discussions are not about proving who is right, but about finding what is right.
It is not about ego. I don't need to prove myself right, and I could easily have been wrong online the other day. I've been wrong before, the prospect doesn't really bother me.
It seems as though the movement toward greater and greater tolerance over the last 50 years has resulted in a tacit agreement among all of us that we will never have a meaningful conversation with anyone of differing beliefs or opinions.
The polite thing to do, it seems, is to "agree to disagree."
The irony is that this standard of behavior actually results in less and less tolerance.
When people only really talk to people they agree with, they develop an us-versus-them mentality. In their frenzy of agreement, the extremes become more extreme. Common sense is lost.
A perfect example is the current political climate.
As Garrison Keillor pointed out last week, my fellow Republicans who are running for president are using the national stage to try to outdo one another in their support for torture nevermind the fact throughout our history we have seen torture is wrong. Nevermind that the rest of the civilized world agrees. Nevermind that it probably really is wrong. Nevermind that it undermines what has historically been our greatest military and diplomatic asset, our example, and is therefore the greatest threat to our position of international leadership. And nevermind the fact that every expert in military intelligence every person with actual interrogation experience believes it is not merely unnecessary, it is in fact more likely to elicit bad intelligence than good.
The torture debate is disgusting and it is unworthy of a once proud nation.
What we need is more tolerance for individuals and less for ideas.