You must be absolutely out of your mind

This afternoon I listened to a debate broadcast on CBC between a meat farmer and a vegan advocate. It’s a topic that has long intrigued me, humans who choose to eat meat and those who do not, and it was indeed fun to listen to. Both participants had a lot to say and presented their own varied sets of evidence, facts and figures to support their arguments. There were moral arguments, environmental arguments, and health-related arguments. Each participant referenced scientific studies, but each participant also made assumptions not referenced by science.

Each individual had an extensive academic background, which made it more enticing. I have my own views on eating meat. I guess on some level when we have an established position on something, by listening to a debate on that topic, I am looking for corroboration. I consider myself open-minded, but I admit possessing some emotional connection to certain positions on controversial topics. It would take a strong argument to change my views.

I expected an academic style debate, with minimal emotion, and minimal animosity. I was disappointed in its combative tone. There was emotion, as well as sarcasm, interruption, and accusation from both sides.

Those are functional roadblocks to progress. There were two extremely well educated experts in their fields who could not hear each other very well, and could not even consider each other’s perspectives. They were desperate to pounce on each proclamation the other made, in an effort to expose the statement as ridiculous, deceptive, extreme, immoral, or radical.

When we argue with loved ones, we make the same mistake. As soon as one barks at the other, “Are you nuts?!” all bets are off. I’ve never convinced anybody that their position is ridiculous by telling them, “That’s ridiculous.” And if someone tells me I’m being ridiculous, I will most likely proceed to explain why I think I’m not being ridiculous.

Once, when I was debating a friend and former colleague online about matters of a political nature, I called him a belligerent, ignorant slut. I even explained in detail why I felt the chosen noun and qualifying adjectives were accurate. I felt I had nailed a solid argument but I was not able to convince him, and the name-calling eventually backfired.

There are a lot of important things to talk about these days. There are a lot of problems to solve and a lot of ideas to consider. We’re better off making a case with provable, visible evidence, but we’re also better off listening to each other, taking time to consider another’s perspective, and then politely responding. Many are reluctant to engage when hurling accusations and making assumptions is imminent. It feels bad. To the contrary, listening to each other and learning from each other feels good. Even when minds are not changed, a healthy discussion with someone of a different mind can be enlightening and ultimately serve to strengthen one’s case.

We always have the right to be skeptical when we hear a statement that sounds fishy, but before launching an aggressive campaign to convince the other person they are absolutely bonkers, one should maybe research his or her startling claim and calmly present the evidence to counter it. “I looked into what you said,” is respectful and immediately shows that the claim was taken seriously, “and I found something that you might find interesting.”

I wish the debate I listened to today had been executed in that manner. A head-to-head meeting of great minds like that is exciting! It’s better to explore, analyze and appreciate each other’s evidence-based ideas before attempting to knock them down.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.