Sunday, March 30, 2008

Try a Little Civility if You Want People to Listen to Your Argument

Susan Jacoby, the author of The Age of American Unreason, laments that most Americans today are not interested in listening to points of view that differ from their own. She writes:

"The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions....Americans in the 1800's, regardless of their level of formal education, wanted to make up their own minds...That kind of curiosity, which demands firsthand evidence of whether the devil really has horns, is essential to the intellectual and political health of any society. In today's America, intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike, whether on the left or the right, tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo. This obduracy is both a manifestation of mental laziness and the essence of anti-intellectualism."

Ms. Jacoby makes an excellent point here. Too often people act as the choir being preached to, rather than seeking out a diverse range of opinions on a topic. But how can one really even figure out what one believes after only hearing one side of an argument?

However, in the next chapter of The Age of American Unreason, it quickly becomes apparent why Ms. Jacoby in particular is encountering difficulty getting her message across to others. Her tone is what some like to call "snarky" but that usually comes across as mean-spirited hostility. Think Michael Moore on the left or Ann Coulter on the right. This type of arrogant insulting of those with whom the author disagrees often completely overshadow the legitimate merits of his or her argument. Incivility has the tendency to "turn off" anyone who does not already 100% agree with him or her.

Take, for example, Ms. Jacoby's commentary on a 2002 Time cover story on the Apocalypse. The point she's trying to make is a valid one, which is the article only included religious viewpoints of different types and no secular viewpoint dismissing the belief in Revelation entirely. Fair enough. But just listen to the kind of inflammatory language she uses to make her argument [emphasis added]:

"[The article] gave no space to those who dismiss the end-times scenario as a collective delusion based on pure superstition and who understand the civic danger inherent in the normalization of ideas that ought to be dismissed as the province of a lunatic fringe...On a deeper level, though, the aritcle exemplifies the journalistic conviction that anything 'controversial' is worth covering and that both sides of an issue must always be given equal space- even if one side belong in an abnormal psychology textbook. If enough money is involved, and enough people believe that two plus two equals five, the media will report the story with a straight face, always adding a qualifying paragraph noting that 'mathematicians, however, say that two plus two still equals four.'"

Ms. Jacoby goes on to describe religious believers as "willfully ignorant", the Bible as "supernatural fantasy", a belief in anything other than atheistic Darwinian evolution as a "cockamamie idea", and calls faith a "toxic" force that is one of the chief "enemies of intellect, learning, and reason". She approvingly quotes PBS journalist and noted liberal Bill Moyers, who calls Christians "ideologues [who] hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality." And that's just in the first chapter of the book!

I really do think that Ms. Jacoby has some valid points to make, especially when it comes to the media, pop culture, and government-run schools. Unfortunately, her obnoxiously arrogant rants against religion make it very difficult to for me to get through her book. If I had wanted that kind of screed, I would've picked up something by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. But I had higher hopes for Ms. Jacoby's book...

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