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Has intelligent debate disappeared among our generation?

| Friday, February 10, 2017

There have been numerous debates on a wide number of societal debates over the past year. I hesitate to call them debates, though. Instead, it seems more like a shouting match in which opposing views try to “win the argument” by drowning out the opposing view. By definition, a debate is a “discussion involving both parties of opposing viewpoints.” Note the word discussion in that definition, which means to “talk about a topic, especially to explore solutions.”

The problem is many debates these days are devoid of the exploration of possible solutions. Two reasons I believe that strongly contribute to this issue are the ability to easily surround yourself with like-minded people via social media and the success that a number of social movements have had despite not having “full legitimacy.”

Surrounding oneself with like-minded people on social media is certainly something that most students are familiar with. Algorithms on sites like Facebook continue to show content that is determined to interest you. This can result in the only posts being shown on your timeline are from people whose posts you have previously liked because you agree with their views. The narrowness of your social media feed narrows even further when you actively “defriend” or “unfollow” people with opposing views as your own. When paired with confirmation bias — the tendency to give more weight to information that you agree with than information that you disagree with — this selective information can be disastrous to progress. If you as an individual believe that the world is flat, your browser could open up the Flat Earth Society website each time that you start it. You could defriend anyone who even hints at believing in the heretic thoughts of a round earth. Within a few weeks, it would appear that everyone around you is crazy because your online persona makes it seem as if it is fact that the Earth is flat.

As far as social movements go, take one look at the anti-vaccination movement. In the past century, diseases such as smallpox and the measles have been declared as eradicated through aggressive vaccination movements; in the past, these diseases used to claim thousands to millions of lives a year. Despite this, 668 cases of the measles were reported in the U.S. — most of whom were people that never received the vaccination. The resurgence of this eradicated disease is proof that the anti-vaccination movement has had detrimental effects on the health of people in this country. How can it be defended? Because many still make claims that vaccines cause autism or other side effects that scientists have proven time and again are false. Unfortunately the issue has been less of a discussion, and more of a, “You’re wrong and I am right!” response from the anti-vaccine supporters.

Clearly these two examples are extreme and many of the current issues are notably more complex, but why should that discourage people from making a discussion out of disagreements? How can this be done? Surround yourself with opposing ideas. Understand your opposition’s point of view. Keep emotions out of it and stick to cold, hard facts, if possible. And at the end of the day, respect others, even if you disagree with them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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