We have all heard the fable (yes, it is a fable) that a frog thrown into boiling water will hop out, but if you gradually heat it slowly the frog will boil to death without escaping. While using the analogy here may lack some creativity, I couldn’t conceive of anything more applicable when looking at the rising tone of rhetoric in our political and religious climate. I’ll be the first to acknowledge there are no windows left on my glass house from the stones I’ve thrown, but maybe that makes me well suited to explain why it is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to any real progress. I’ll start with a question. How many arguments have you won by launching visceral and cunning attacks at your opponent? Before you answer, define winning. Because if you think it is about proving you’re right, you’re not even playing the right game. More to come on that.
The truth is, whether we like or not, we learn from what we are exposed to. Niche networks aligned to specific political agendas rule the airways of news. They rally their base with “red meat” monologues designed to touch nerves by articulating points in the most lethal manner possible. We watch, waiting for another correspondent to take it up another level hoping for more validation and ammunition to put it in our own arsenals. Without stopping to verify information from other perspectives, we wield these messages into our views and conversations without filter. Armed with numbers, but not the knowledge of how they were compiled, we blindly back up our arguments with these “facts” to demonstrate how well researched we are on the topic.
Making matters worse is that when these networks do actual research, they present only the data that supports their view. “Unemployment is 8.9%! We need new leadership!” When that number falls to under 6%, how do these same networks respond? “The formula is wrong, it doesn’t include x.” Well, why didn’t you tell us that when the number was 8.9%? We move the yardstick without discretion, and we’re not even coy about it anymore. Anyone with any objectivity whatsoever would call this integrity violation out, but we don’t. Not at any level of critical mass anyway. So the message resonates, escalates, and the rhetoric around an unsubstantiated fallacy, or at best, an embellished truth propagates and goes viral.
As with any fight, what does one do when punched in the face? They punch back. And fall prey to the same practices. The tragedy is, it doesn’t work. No one has ever persuaded anyone of anything by proving they can be the bigger douche bag. And persuasion is how you actually win the game (see first paragraph). The problem is that votes are what win elections, and mobilizing those that already agree with you is far less work than actually changing someone’s mind. So we continue the cycle, drive the ratings up on the most extreme news coverage possible, and learn more bad behavior. With each passing day, the rhetoric cuts more to the core than the day before. In return, the responses turn the knob even further. It doesn’t take long before you describe your country is an assembly of red states and blue states instead of the United States (my apologies to the global readers, but my country worked best for the example #ethnocentric).
But this isn’t about the politicians, they are beyond our help. It is about you, me, and the generation to follow. Just as we advocate for critical thinking, skepticism, and objectivity, we must also advocate for productive debate. We need to stop incentivizing the “decimate your opponent” mentality and focus more on the educate your opponent strategy. Put the facts in your back pocket, you can use them later if needed. Identify, empathize, relate. Ask questions. Seek to understand. Do you know how disarming it is when someone genuinely wants to hear your perspective? I don’t say that to be manipulative by the way. The fact is that we all need some level of foreplay in order to engage. The only person who lets you go straight to third base is the one who already wanted you to go there.
Eighth grade dating analogies aside, we can’t forget the objective of any argument is to persuade your opponent to your position, or to at least consider an alternate position. The only way to do that is to listen. Painful as they may sound to restrain your vast intellect, you won’t penetrate theirs until you show you can expose yours. That is how you coax that figurative frog out of the water. More importantly, that is how we can model a stronger generation that can actually comprehend and seek reason. And all we have to do is stop being douche bags.