For Argument’s Sake
Gabriel Scorgie // Columnist
Conflict is at the root of human nature. Dr. Israel Shahak was the chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. He had a tough youth, growing up as a Jewish resident in pre-1940 Poland. In 1943, his family was captured and sent to the Poniatowa concentration camp. By Shahak’s 13th birthday, he had lost his father, escaped Poniatowa with his mother, been recaptured by Nazi forces and sent to another concentration camp where they were eventually liberated by the British.
Everything he endured should’ve made him adverse to conflict, yet when his friend, author and columnist Christopher Hitchens, would ask his opinion on current events, Shahak would often say, “there are some encouraging signs of polarization.”
Shahak understood that an open debate of ideas is necessary. An idea, principal or belief must be able to survive the collision with an opposing view for it to have value. San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem last year to start a conversation. He believes that minorities are oppressed and discriminated against in the United States and wants to talk to those who refute his point of view.
The problem we face is that these conversations seldom happen. Arguments on both sides of the issue exist, but they run parallel to each other, rarely crossing paths.
One of the most prominent voices in racial discussions is author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. His book, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son shortly after the acquittal of the police officers involved in the killing of Eric Garner, attracted praise from writers, minorities and liberal-leaning individuals. Coates believes America’s history is that of “racist violence that has been woven into American culture.”
Though many people praise Coates, he does have his opponents. Thomas Chatterton Johnson and Jason Hill are examples of authors who have penned responses to articles and books Coates has written. They argue that his ideas on race are nihilistic and directly contradict their experiences as black people in America.
However, that’s where the debate dies. They throw a glancing blow that Coates need not respond to. There’s no penetrating cross-examination and neither Coates nor his detractors must defend their views any further. Little progress is made.
Although it’s rare two equally matched debaters will succeed in convincing the other, it’s even rarer that both sides will have the exact same stance on the issue afterward. Concessions will be made, and an adjustment will have occurred – even if their stance appears to be the same.
John Milton said in Areopagitica, a speech he gave against censorship, that if we believe our position is right then it should be exposed to the wrong, because only in a fair fight can it be proven correct. Fyodor Dostoevsky would make his ideological antagonist as strong as possible in his novels so he could be sure he fully understood the opposing argument.
By challenging views oppositional to ours, we also challenge our own. It’s a crash test to see if we really understand the issue or if we’re seeking asylum in the false notion of consensus. Answer this, if someone told you today they thought the moon landing was fake and provided facts to support their claim, could you prove them wrong?
Kaepernick is right when he says we need a conversation. The leaders of movements need to talk to each other, not just at each other. Coates himself admits his opinions on race have radicalized in recent years. More people are being pulled towards the corners of their ideologies.
No number of open letters or brief news segments is going to change that. Long form, open debates might. Kaepernick is partly right when he says America needs a conversation. Americans don’t just need to talk – they need to argue.