I’m learning a lot from young people about the problem of drawing the line, by which I mean the expectation that we will take fixed stances on certain questions, choosing up sides.
In his 1945 essay, “Reflections on Drawing The Line,” the late, great Paul Goodman pointed out that it is the absurd frameworks and conditions of society that propel us into feeling we have to draw the line in the first place. “A free man,” Goodman writes, “so long as he creates and goes by his clear and distinct ideas, can easily maintain in his soul many apparent contradictions.” In contrast, social pressures coerce us into drawing arbitrary or symbolic lines in the sand — you’re either for life or against it, we heard in the Terry Schiavo case, draw your line and let’s have it out! — where “a free man…would not have finally to draw a line in their absurd conditions which he has disdained from the very beginning.”
“We draw the line,” wrote Goodman, “in their conditions; we proceed on our conditions.”
The essay ends with a little story: “Tom says to Jerry: ‘Do you want to fight? Cross that line!’ and Jerry does. ‘Now,’ cries Tom, ‘you’re on my side!'”
Earlier this week, I wrote about phone interviews I’ve been doing with teenagers taking part in online discussions of global issues. I tend to think of “global” as synonymous with “international,” but out of the hundreds of topics raised in these online conversations over the last year, the most popular by far have been highly personal, chiefly abortion and same-sex marriage. I guess you could say these issues are global in another sense: all-engrossing and evergreen.
I haven’t completed my interviews yet, but so far not a single participant has said that his or her mind was changed on one these controversial personal-morality questions. In fact, most have said debating strengthened their own position because it forced them to back up their assertions by citing sources and quoting studies. One told me that she prefers online debate to the face-to-face variety, because she can always pause between rounds to Google the statistics she needs to support her argument or demolish her opponent’s.
These are kids who enjoy controversy, who sought this opportunity in part because their flesh-and-blood friends at home don’t share their taste for argument with anything like the enthusiasm shown by online friends who live thousands of miles apart. They enjoy grappling with issues and want to get better at it. I like political give-and-take too (though perhaps not so much as I did at their age), so I empathize. But as I read through their debates, I find myself wondering at the persistence of their interest in exchanging polarized and highly repetitive arguments for weeks on end.
Now I am beginning to understand it. One boy who describes himself as conservative said he and a member who calls herself liberal went at the abortion issue for more than 300 exchanges. When I asked why, he said that he wanted to learn all he could about the opposition’s views. “I want to know why they believe what they do, so I can answer all their arguments.” Now that he’s exhausted that topic, he said he’d “like to go to gay marriage and do the same thing. I believe I’m right, but I can’t completely see the logic to it. Sometimes people ask questions I can’t answer, and I want to be able to answer them all.”
Here’s what I’m wondering: What for? If no one changes views regardless of how persistently and diligently each side is argued, what is the value of being able to counter every point your opponents might possibly raise? There seems to be only one value, and it reminds me of nothing so much as the arms race idea of “mutual assured destruction”: to equip one’s own side with a rhetorical arsenal so overwhelming that no one is ever at a loss for words, and therefore no one is ever vulnerable to defeat on the field of argument.
In the big world beyond these kids’ computers, there’s still a role for persuasive speech, as election strategists kept telling us during the Bush-Kerry presidential race: to convert the undecided into the committed. But what is it to be undecided on issues that are in our faces each and every day? In such a context, indecision either means indifference or the perception that two or more sides of an argument have equal value. Both are hard to influence through argument.
The microcosm of public discourse provided by these teenagers seems important to me (and not just because I’ve had my face pressed up against it, peering hard). It raises a question that obsesses me: how do we live with intractable differences when we have no hope of convincing thoughtful adherents of opposing views to change their minds? The answer that is starting to take shape comes from Paul Goodman: we step over the lines that have been drawn by others, redrawing them on our own terms. We reframe the problem so it’s commodious enough to contain real dialogue.
The kids in the online discussion, like many of their parents and grandparents, have been tricked into believing that drawing the line on abortion or same-sex marriage is what matters most. While we are preoccupied with the eternal tennis match of intractable opposites, the debates and decisions of greatest import to our society are being conducted privately by those who, in Goodman’s terms, set the conditions, the rules of engagement for the rest of us. What about how we should care for the ill and aged, the nature of education, the changing character of work, the growth of poverty, a hundred other momentous questions suppressed through this act of misdirection?
What I hear from the teenagers is that once they leave the hot-button issues behind they tend to reach understanding. “Being in New York City,” one liberal-activist boy told me, “I’m not exposed to conservative ideology every day. There’s not that much political diversity in any part of the United States.” One conservative Christian girl said this of the people she most strongly opposed in the intractable debates: “Those are the people I come to be closest to and find out I have most in common with.”
So as I wrote earlier this week, one way to reduce polarization is to create opportunities for people who differ to get to know each other, to stay in contact until they get past the polarities. There are lots of organizations trying to do just that by sponsoring interfaith dialogues or community study circles. But most adults don’t have endless hours to discuss issues with people who feel very differently about them, so I haven’t been able to think of a practical way to generalize this useful idea widely enough to change the political culture. (Have you?)
The other way to redraw the line is to refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted into the perpetual exchange of irreconcilable differences. I have my own strong opinions on abortion and same-sex marriage, of course. Maybe someday the winds will shift and it will be possible again to speak reasonably about them. But for now, what about a moratorium? What if we started a trend?
The next time you’re invited to draw the line, try saying this: “We’re both busy people, so why waste our time debating things that can’t be resolved? Let’s talk about something else.” There are dozens of urgent questions that can still be discussed: even William Safire is alarmed about encroachments on privacy of personal information, for instance. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.