I’ve always loved debating. Not just enjoyed, or participated, but actually loved getting into arguments. As a kid I used to make my parents explain to me just how come I needed to complete my list of chores every day. Why was my favorite word. In classrooms I often found myself playing devil’s advocate, imploring my teachers and classmates to dig deeper into issues they thought they understood. In high school I participated in debate and mock trial, channeling my passion into a concrete set of skills. Now in college, I continue to pressure friends and colleagues with my incessant need to probe “just what you meant by that”.
I think it stems from my learned skepticism to accept what I am told at face value. I was lucky enough to grow up in a diverse area, and even spent some time living overseas. I’ve seen a lot of problems in the communities I’ve been a part of, but I’ve also seen a lot of solutions. And one thing I know to be true is that the best solutions come when people work together to produce ideas and actions that reflect multiple points of view. This necessarily requires open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen and reform your own thoughts on subjects as you gain new insights. Debate is a fantastic way to achieve this- if you can do it right.
Without really realizing it, my love of argumentation and knowledge led me into the majority of my studies as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. I began as a Philosophy major, interested in learning answers to the “big questions” of humanity. I dreamed of going head to head with great thinkers on ideas that have befuddled humans from our earliest days. Eventually I found this field too esoteric, however, and I blended my love for debate with an emerging interest in public policy by switching my major to Political Science. I figured I could employ my arguing skills in a concrete way that might yield tangible answers to important questions of public life. For a few quarters I was happily engaged in this practice, chipping away at the foundational readings that defined the field, and productively discussing many of main ideas with my peers. By sharing our thoughts, we could expand our collective knowledge and reach new conclusions that elevated everyone’s understanding. As someone who was always comfortable answering “I honestly don’t know”, these formative years helped me learn how the level-headed exchange of opinions is one of the most important tools groups have in reaching true understanding and building solidarity based on mutual respect.
But the further along in my classes I got, the more complex the political ideas became. No longer were we discussing simple questions like what defines a state or a citizen – upper division classes brought up morally charged issues like LGBTQ rights, abortion, and immigration. I began to notice a sharp shift in the tenor of my conversations. People with whom I had previously enjoyed amicable give-and-take discussions now rigidly defended their stances on such issues. It seemed the more complicated the topic, the more students around me wanted to dig their ideological heels into the dirt without even considering alternative views. Everyone had to be right. Peers were now opponents, becoming philosophical and sometimes even physical enemies. I found myself ending arguments in less fruitful ways, at best agreeing to disagree, and at worst stirring up such vitriol that both parties walked away with bitter tastes in their mouth. Even students who were actively engaged in educating themselves on these issues were doing a poor job of communicating whatever knowledge they had in a manner that yielded any enhanced awareness. Time and time again I entered into conversations where I could tell we would get nowhere within the first minute.
This is when I came to an important inflection point in my intellectual life: what became more interesting to me than the content we were debating was how people carried out debates about that content. I realized that what I really wanted to study was the way people framed these discussions; what were the mental mechanisms in place that led people to hold and defend such variable opinions so steadfastly? Why do we seem so unable to negotiate reasonably on some political and moral issues? Soon after this realization I yet again switched my major and entered the field of Psychology. It was right before my third year of college when I finally found my academic passion; it may have come late, but at least it came.
In fact, I don’t think it could have possibly come at a better time. As I was gearing up for my junior year and my foray into political psychology, politicians and their teams across the country were gearing up to run for office in the 2016 election. Political discourse became more and more frequent everywhere I looked. In the headlines, in the halls of our government, in the streets, and in every other place you could think to look were passionate proclamations on hot-button issues relating to the election. And they were certainly hot.
Republicans and democrats alike demonized each other to the point of inhumanity. Both sides propagated incredibly narrow arguments based on narrow information disseminated by biased media outlets. Protests and counter protests raged in cities and digital communities across the country. And the closer we got to election day, the more intense the rhetoric became. It felt to me as if a war was raging, not to glorify what America was, but to define what it should be along two diametrically opposed points of view.
College campuses like UCSB were certainly not immune from this war. Students all over campus engaged in sometimes thoughtful, but more often ignorantly divisive discussions. While I initially was fascinated (and admittedly a little bit entertained) with the phenomenon of our seeming inability to discourse effectively, I soon came to another important realization which cast a dark shadow over my budding curiosity with the subject: if the young adults being educated in the elite university environment around me were lacking the ability to communicate in a reasonable, productive manner, our country was seriously at risk. Our future leaders were failing to learn the art of civil negotiation.
So I busied myself not with arguing, for once, but in consuming all of the resources I could find on the ways we conduct such values-based conversations from a psychological perspective. I read papers, books, and opinion pieces. I took classes. I participated in labs studying political psychology. I was completely immersed in my quest to understand why we find it so hard to negotiate with each other when it matters the most. In educating myself I began to piece together the puzzle of how the human mind is shaped both for conflict and cooperation. A fuzzy picture was emerging of why and how we prime ourselves for one or the other depending on our current situation. Slowly but surely I started to unravel the reasons why my peers found it so difficult to engage in productive conversations. What I found was interesting, terrifying and exciting to me. I went deeper into the rabbit hole with great enthusiasm.
At the same time that our country was nearing the election and I was occupied with understanding how we might be more civil about the way we discuss it, I was becoming fed up with standing idly by as my peers screamed and argued like cavemen all around me. I can remember one instance clearly when it became too much for me to handle. At 2 in the morning, after a night of drinking and fun, two of my housemates decided to ruin a perfectly good evening by engaging in a hostile debate over the election. As it was about to escalate out of control, I interjected myself as a calm intermediary. I explained how their brains might be activating a fight or flight response which barred them from leaving emotion out of a rational conversation. I told them that it may be the case that neither of the sources they were citing were entirely authoritative, but because our brains are so wired to attend to information we want to hear they would never think to check. I helped them to recognize where they might unconsciously put up mental blinders that prevented them from truly hearing the views of the other side in the face of threat. I even explained that while arguments can feel like a personal attack, by using only slightly different wording they could reduce the other’s perception that their identity was being persecuted. After all that, we were all able to calmly continue our debate without losing mutual respect for one another.
For the first time in a long time, I was a part of a conversation on political issues that ended in all parties walking away more educated, more aware, and more empathetic to the common good all Americans ought to be seeking. All because I spoke up about what I was passionate about. This was a big moment for me.
After that day I decided I could make it my mission to progress our understanding of efficient political dialogue through explanation of our psychological makeups. The tumultuous environment I studied in didn’t just give me real-life subjects to observe, but also showed me the grave need for the insights they revealed to be put to productive use in our communities. My love of argumentation led me to a place where the practical applications of leveraging the art effectively would demonstrably make our society a better place. As a scholar, writer, and thinker I know I have the tools to make effective change in the way we frame our political dialogues. I have seen the good I can achieve when I put my skills to use, and now there is no going back. My living room and college campus are simply testing grounds in the face of the immense challenges our society faces when it comes to civil communication: partisanship is at an all-time high among the halls of our legislators, but also, it seems, among the divided citizens of this country. More now than ever we need to focus on learning to negotiate with one another in ways that produce true solutions, not destructive divisions.
I can see a brighter future for us, one where differences don’t pull us apart, but bring us strength and creativity from our diversity. I can’t say that I know how we will get there, but I know I will be an agent of change towards this future. For now, I will keep writing, keep learning, and continue arguing.