The art of debate in American public discourse has, it seems, gone the way of the dodo bird. Insults and accusations have replaced the reasoned presentation of ideas buttressed by points of fact.
Take, for instance, the subject of homosexual marriage. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are accused frequently of being bigoted homophobes, end of discussion. As a result, real public debate on the issue has been squelched. The average American, who must sort through media portrayals of the debate to arrive at a conclusion, is thus vulnerable to manipulation.
A case in point is the disparity between the percentage of Americans who identify as homosexual or bi-sexual and the public perception of that percentage.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study this month which found that slightly more than 2 percent of Americans identify as homosexual or bisexual.
However, a 2011 Gallup poll found that “U.S. adults, on average, estimate that 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian.” Among young adults ages 18-26, the estimate jumps to 29.9 percent.
When you juxtapose the CDC study with the Gallup poll, you see just how far removed perception can be from reality. When reasoned debate disappears, manipulation of the masses is likely to follow.
Pick almost any controversial subject and the scenario is the same. Whether the issue is abortion, illegal immigration, evolution or any other hot topic, the absence of reasoned debate leads to manipulation.
This is why dictatorships, whatever governmental form they may take, go to great lengths to control the information to which their citizens have access. So long as they control the information, they can manipulate their citizens into believing what they want.
While any political and philosophical persuasion can substitute insults and accusation for reasoned debate, it seems liberals in America have used that tactic frequently.
On abortion liberals accuse their opponents of being anti-choice and anti-women. Those against illegal immigration are labeled uncaring and lacking compassion. If you question the validity of evolution, you are accused of not only being anti-intellectual but also woefully ignorant.
America is currently as divided as it has ever been. There are myriad controversial issues that must be addressed. Americans of every political stripe must insist that reasoned debate take place in order for citizens to be fully informed.
To see the importance of reasoned debate, we need only look back to another time when our country was divided over a very controversial issue.
In 1858, America was sharply divided over the issue of slavery. During the late summer and early fall of that year, two men vying for an Illinois senate seat debated each other seven times over the thorny issue.
From mid-August to mid-October Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met throughout the Prairie State and meticulously dissected the issue of slavery in the United States.
There was no love lost between Douglas and Lincoln. However, a sense of decorum caused the pair to duel via argument. They were passionate about their positions, but treated each other with dignity and respect.
When the debate dust settled, Douglas won the senate seat. However, the public had been exposed to Lincoln’s arguments against slavery in America. As a result, he became the Republican nominee for president during the election of 1860 and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was ideas, points of fact and information that persuaded the public to Lincoln’s point of view, not his personality. He had no need to hurl insults and accusations at his opponent. He had the truth.
Like never before America needs reasoned debate surrounding the controversial issues of the day. Christians can, and should, lead the way as examples in how to debate with decorum.
The Bible is replete with admonitions on how we should treat one another, the most famous of which was uttered by Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
If you wouldn’t want someone hurling accusations or snide insinuations at you, then refrain from doing the same.
The biblical principle is that people are to be treated with dignity and respect, even those who might perceive themselves as our enemies. “Love your enemies,” Jesus taught, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
Positions on any controversial subject can be presented without compromise while at the same time “opponents” can be treated with respect.
One of my favorite books is titled The Velvet Covered Brick. Published in 1973, it was written by Howard E. Butt who at the time was vice chairman of the board of H.E.B. grocery stores, based in Texas.
Butt’s book addressed servant leadership before the topic was in vogue. The title sums up the book’s theme: Christians, leaders in particular, should be like velvet-covered bricks – steadfast and immovable on issues of truth yet tender and kind toward individuals.
Christians need to lead the way in reviving reasoned debate. In so doing followers of Christ should be velvet-covered bricks, unyielding in reference to the truth, but careful to not unnecessarily bruise people in the process of making a case.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)