Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You Are Wrong

So, I'm all for disagreement and protest and whatnot. And if someone is making a speech (or whatever) that you vehemently disagree with, it's good to be able to express that somehow. Case in point: Brendan Nelson's speech today (following Kevin Rudd's historic "Sorry" proclamation), which a ton of people apparently booed, turned their backs on, disconnected the broadcast of, etc etc. Now I'm not a fan of Nelson's speech myself, so I find it hard to be against what people did here. But there's something about that method of protest in general that irks me.

Isn't refusing to listen to the people you disagree with the absolute worst thing that you can do, in an argument? For one thing, how can you expect the other people to listen to you in return? For another: if you want your own stance to be the best one, shouldn't you listen to as many opposing views as possible, in order to refine your own arguments against them? Shouting over someone rather than listening to them turns a discussion into not-a-discussion, into something else. It just becomes a kind of performance, a visceral sort of declaration of us-vs-them.

(It also reminds me too much of the far-left groups I knew at university, and why they tended to annoy and upset me: because, fundamentally, I agree with them. I share most of their dislikes and their aims, I just hated the ham-fisted, dogmatic & overly-aggressive way they usually went about them).

If I said that "arguments are not fights", then it would sound like a truism. But what about "arguments are not wars", or "arguments are not battles"? Doesn't sound quite right, does it? People are used to treating arguments and disagreements as if they really are wars. It's way too easy to slip into the rhetoric of attack, into that same sort of aggressive, confrontational behaviour. But while that's a lot of fun and often cathartic (especially if it seems like you 'win' at the end), I've come to think that it just doesn't work. Nobody is convinced that they are wrong because they were yelled at and not listened to. As a protestor, what do you really want do – make a righteous symbolic action against your enemy, or turn your enemy into your friend?

(on the other hand... is it ironic that I'm arguing against an example of people who were making a symbolic protest against an aspect of an event – the "Sorry" speech – that was, in itself, important for its symbolism more than anything else?)

I know, I know, this is all naive bullshit; some people can't be reasoned with, can't be argued with, you have to be tough and uncompromising to get results blah blah etc. But I don't think that's entirely so, to be honest. And I'd say that the fact that so many people appear to be immune to changing their minds or allegiances (eg, the seemingly intractable red/blue social divide in the US) must be related to the modes of discourse that they are living in (& ps: even if so inclined, please don't stop reading just because I used the word 'discourse'). People's minds can be changed, but sometimes – most of the time – it has to happen slowly and with care. Right?

Early on in Dead Poet's Society, Robin Williams' character tells his students to rip out the introduction to their poetry textbook, because it's spouting a whole bunch of crap about what supposedly makes a good poem. But if it's wrong, why not just ignore it? Why not keep it there, as a reminder of how easy it is to be authoritative and wrong? Why bother to damage the binding of your book? (Because it's otherwise not an effective spectacle, it doesn't catch your attention and it's much less dramatic). If arguments are bad, let them stand up for their minute so that you can remember how to knock them down next time.

Ah, if you're not convinced of what I'm saying by now you never will be. Go read something else, you stupid loser.

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