Civil Debate In A Polarized Culture: Is It Dead?

Twenty20 / celsoaforster
Twenty20 / celsoaforster

When was the last time you engaged in a debate with some whom you disagreed with about something important? How did it turn out?


Because of my job and because of academia, I tend to engage in a lot of debates with people. But outside of that, I’ve always loved argument. As a child and later a teen, I got into some trouble for it. I wanted people to be able to explain the reason for their opinions – and why others should subscribe to them. (Mostly and probably obnoxiously, I probably wanted to thwart their arguments.)

The problem of course, in my observation, is that many people don’t know how to argue.

Some people have a problem with the word, argument. For some, the connotation is negative. There is an assumption that an argument will lead to bad experiences or bad feelings between those involved in it.

I have often found that is the outcome when people don’t know how to argue. The problem of course, in my observation, is that many people don’t know how to argue.


This past weekend, I went to dinner with a friend who brought a friend, and whose friend brought a friend. So there were four of us there. And for all intents and purposes, my friend and I knew each other best. Interestingly, she is a friend I often debate with about many things – and we both love and respect each for it. But there was a lot of good debate at dinner, and about some contentious issues.

One of the people at dinner worked for the DEA in Chicago – The Drug Enforcement Administration – and was also a former cop. One of the continuous debates we had for much of the dinner centered on decriminalization of drugs. Although the topic is closely related to a topic I am familiar with – the prison industrial complex – the culture and science of criminalization of drugs is a whole other area of interest. And one that I had only begun to become familiar with this year.

For the record, I used to be very anti-marijuana. Why? Because I am not really a big fan of any form of smoking. But some time during my senior year of college when I actually started to look into the science of it all, it didn’t seem to make sense to criminalize its use.

Since then, and going through the rigor of grad school and gaining a deeper understanding of both culture and science, my legal perspectives shifted because I reconsidered my ideological viewpoints based on new information. This is how education is supposed to work, I believe.

At dinner, the conversation was passionate. But it was respectful. The friend who worked for the DEA brought up some valid points. I made some too. A few of them have caused me to want to do more research into those points. (To understand them better but also because education should teach you a healthy form of skepticism.) But mostly, I left with my viewpoints in tact. As did he. We continued to have drinks afterward.

Although I am proud to say this is not particularly unusual for me – and I have my upbringing to thank, which included academic parents, always being confronted with unfamiliar cultural viewpoints – and indeed my own education plays a role, I still think in a polarized culture, such a thing has become a rarity.


From the very homes that people live in to how they interact with complete strangers online, it has become apparent that there is a serious problem with how people argue. There is a lack of respect firstly for the person on the other side, and by extension for one’s self as well. Then there is often the unwillingness to humble one’s self and admit that one doesn’t know much about something, or perhaps enough about something, to form an informed opinion.

But I ask, what is the point in engaging only in things you already agree with?

The ad hominem attacks that we see from how our Supreme Court judges communicate with each other to how people respond to a tweet they might disagree with, leaves much to be desired. The refusal to listen to a viewpoint that is not your own, even when it has all the makings of an educated and properly stated perspective, has become more common than not.

Everything from the social circles we are in, to the media we consume, to the books we read, to the beliefs we hold onto, has become segmented to the point that we filter everything else out.

But I ask, what is the point in engaging only in things you already agree with? Most times, you have not learned anything new. We can believe strongly in the things that we believe in and still be open to other viewpoints. And if need be, control for objectively well-thought out ones.

We must accept too that although the digital space which is a great place for the spread of information and ideas, is not always the best space for the debates people try to use it for. This is to say, 140 characters might not be the best place for an in-depth conversation on drug criminalization. An email might, a phone call might, a dinner might.

Picking and choosing a platform for a debate is important to debate itself. You need only read through cringeworthy dialogues between two people combating each other in the most unproductive way on Twitter or Facebook or God forbid, in a comments section.


As we are reasonably into ‘political presidential season’ – which is undoubtedly my least favourite season ever, a culture of polarization and the lack of civil debate in our discussions is only all the more amplified.

For those of us who philosophically (or otherwise) choose not to be a part of holding onto one political ideology over the other (Because truly, how one sole political ideology can encompass someone’s beliefs is always amazing to me.), it is a nightmare still to watch.

Debate is an art and a science. The science is of course the logical and analytical arguments one presents. The art is how one may communicate it; the art is in the respect one has for the person that opposes them. The science is realizing the use of a false equivalency or a logical fallacy. The art is in the tact used to explain how and why the opposition made one.

Civil debate is not quite dead yet but it needs to be saved.

We have all been guilty of participating in a debate in a bad way, in a way that is not a reflection of the type of person we want to be. We have, all I think, failed at both the art and science, preferring to “win,” rather than to be educated. But what if we changed that? What if we saw a debate as an opportunity for education rather than a battle of sorts? How would the culture look?

It is said that an educated citizenry is needed for a democracy to work. Notwithstanding the very real arguments that we live more in an oligarchy than a democracy, the way in which we debate as a culture is proof that the education of the culture is lacking. And we need to rescue it, individually, and in groups. From how we interact with each other over small things, to what we applaud and disapprove of from our public officials.

Civil debate is not quite dead yet but it needs to be saved. And you and I are the only ones that can save it. We often ask our leaders to provide good examples. But perhaps we need to provide good examples to those that lead us. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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