When was the last time you had a friendly debate? Do you have relationships that are secure enough to handle disagreement? Unfortunately, as many of us know, healthy robust debate has become scarce over the last decade. Many people attribute this lack of thoughtful discussion to the rise of social media, and for good reason. Social media is a good platform for sharing simple information (vacation pictures, announcements of events like graduations, or jokes). In my opinion, it is not a good platform for discussing complex ideas from multiple perspectives. Social media is for quick check-ins. Debate requires time for the full development of arguments. Social media allows an unlimited number of people to chime in. Debate sets limits on audience participation. Social media has no way of regulating the tone of the discussion. Debate involves rules of decorum. But many people have failed to realize that the social media environment is not good for debate, and so they threw their ideas out there and invited discussion. The result has often been a digital bloodbath.
Every encounter makes us vulnerable. When we share our ideas there is always the possibility that we will be challenged. This is normal and healthy. However, since we have lost some of our rules of engagement (courtesy, listening, curiosity), challenges have become aggressive and in some cases brutal. Therefore, we have become a society of people who wear emotional and intellectual armor with each other. It’s safer just to stay quiet.
This is a shame, because the free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of our society. But all is not lost! There are places where the art of debate is alive and well. One such place is a small farming community of New York Mills, Minnesota. Amidst the cornfields and grain silos there lies a long standing tradition of open debate in the form of the “Great American Think Off.” Each year since 1993, the town has released a question for debate, inviting people from all over the country to submit an argument, pro or con. Two winners are selected from each side culminating in a live debate in June. Then, an audience of local people (farmers, teachers, plumbers) vote on who carried the day. This year the question is “Which should be more important: personal choice or social responsibility?” It should be a good one.
Why am I writing about this? New York Mills is my mother’s hometown. It is a place and a heritage that I treasure and one that guides me today. After worship this past Sunday someone approached me and said “I have a different perspective on something you said,” then he proceeded to share his thoughts. I was thrilled! First, he was listening deeply. Second, the sermon had stimulated his own thinking. And third, he had the interest to share it with me.
I am always interested in hearing what you think, especially if it widens my perspective with a different view.