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The need for decorum in meaningful discourse

Ruth Bishop

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“And that makes you despicable.”

These five words at the end of a comment on one of my previous columns, “Feminism includes pro-life beliefs” struck a chord with me — not really because I was surprised by this commenter’s rudeness but by the fact that this statement concluded what was an un-supported, emotionally-charged post. If you are going to call me despicable, please give me at least a few pieces of logical evidence supporting your argument. But this column isn’t about “despicable me” or pro-life feminism; it’s about the fact that name-calling and emotional arguments have replaced intellectual arguments as the norm in discourse.

It seems that it is perfectly okay to harshly judge our peer’s moral character from their 500-word newspaper column or Facebook post that we happen to not agree with. When we are protected behind our bright little screens, why not say how we really feel — why not just say “I think you’re stupid and a terrible person” when there are no real consequences for doing so?

I can give you three reasons why.

First off, hiding behind over-used one-liners toted by the right and the left like “Immigrants steal our jobs” or “My body, my choice” or using insults instead of providing evidence for supporting your views is counterproductive. When people write on controversial topics, they do so expecting a response — one of their goals is to generate a healthy discussion on the topic that will provide new insights on both sides of the issue. Show me the article providing evidence that immigrants steal American jobs; explain to me why you think the fetus is a part of the mother’s body. We should seek to learn from each other’s diverse perspectives and ideas; especially because, for many hot-button issues, there is no hard, fast solution. But how can we learn from each other if we condense our dissenting ideas to 100 character Facebook posts or internet memes? Don’t issues impacting millions of people like immigration and abortion deserve more thoughtful discussion?

Secondly, personally insulting those who disagree with us shuts down meaningful discourse. No one likes to be insulted or attacked, no matter how high one’s self-esteem is. The moment you regress to defaming me, personally, instead of my argument, I stop listening to you, even if you have some good points interspersed between your insults.

Lastly, these types of comments inhibit the free exchange of ideas since students with certain views fear being vilified as a result of openly sharing them. Don’t support gay marriage? — you’re a bigot. You want to deport undocumented immigrants? — you’re also a bigot. We are too quick to write-off those who disagree with us as people to be shunned, people to unfriend on Facebook and people to judge as hopeless causes. We should at least listen to what these people have to say, because oftentimes, they may have a few logically-sound reasons backing them up. And if we want to further our own arguments, we must understand what the other side’s views are so that we can provide counter-arguments to show why we think these views are wrong.

Disagreement is a beautiful thing. We are lucky to live in a country where we can disagree with our government and peers and do so loudly and publicly. Why is it that we now act as if disagreement is something to be feared? Why is it that we believe we cannot be friends if we do not agree on certain issues?

If we want to grow in our understanding of the complexities of the world, we cannot fear being wrong or making a fool of ourselves — and we cannot be so harsh on one another when we do. We are only twenty-somethings; we cannot expect ourselves or are peers to have everything figured out by now. And that’s why we are here, at an institution of higher-learning, to grow and learn from the myriad of experiences that have shaped dissenting perspectives on this campus. Let’s disagree more, but use intellectual arguments instead of insults as our ammunition.

Ruth Bishop is a senior majoring in biology and Spanish. Her column runs biweekly.

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The need for decorum in meaningful discourse