A reminder in these populist times that it’s possible to debate issues without resorting to calling anyone who holds a differing opinion a ‘Nazi’ and blocking them…

It is widely acknowledged that the Ancient Greek statesman Pericles introduced the idea of civilised, democratic debate during the 5th Century BC. His concept of ‘rhetoric’ emphasised the importance of public discussion and persuasion.

The American historian Donald Kagan notes that Pericles adopted ‘an elevated mode of speech, free from the vulgar and knavish tricks of mob-orators’ As for Pericles himself, he remarked that, ‘Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.’

In other words, you don’t get anywhere without discussion.

And discussion implies the free flow of differing opinions, to be listened to and weighed up by both parties. The traditions of cultured debate, as laid down by Pericles some 2,500 years ago, prize the values of oratory and repartee – it is a test of wits, where ‘wise action’ benefits from healthy discussion and a respect for intelligent reasoning.

Contrast that with today’s forums, where online trolls and populist memes favour the vulgar over the respectful exchange of views. The echo chamber of social media that sees any dissenting view – from the left or right of the political divide – immediately dismissed as that of a ‘Nazi’. Rather than engaging in debate, we prefer to mock and block. Raw, vulgar insults and belittling are commonplace, from the sofa to our seats of power.

It wasn’t always thus. Political debate – formed over those thousands of years – was born out of the noble art of disagreeing. It’s OK to think differently: the point is how you deal with those differences. Are they stumbling blocks or opportunities for better understanding? As Zacharay R Wood says in his enlightening TED talk from 2018, it’s worth listening to people you disagree with.

‘My mom wanted me to understand that I should never just write off opinions that I disagreed with or disliked’

 

Rhetoric – as both Pericles and Wood understand it – is about empathy. It demands that you see your adversary’s side. You acknowledge they may have a point or at least have formed their opinion from a rational position. It entails listening to them occasionally without interrupting and formulating your response in relation to the issues they raised. You might even give them the odd gift or two:

‘The noise, the mess, the chaos…’

The above clip may seem flippant and cutesy. But it’s there to make a serious point. Empathy is not an empty term. It is the first step in civilised debate – and it demands that you see your opponent as a human being.

Again, this may seem trite, but it’s worth repeating in an era where online discussion often descends into alienation: positing anyone who disagrees as a meaningless ‘other’ whose belief stands for less than your own.

The art of disagreeing also puts a strong emphasis on humour – and learning to take the barbs in good spirit as well as dishing them out. During his bid for re-election in 1984, President Reagan was asked during a televised debate with Democrat candidate Walter Mondale if his age (he was 73 at the time) was affecting his performance and ability to lead. Reagan’s witty retort may have been careful prepared by a team of scriptwriters, but the delivery revealed all the skills of his previous job as a Hollywood actor.

‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign,’ deadpanned Reagan. ‘I am not going to exploit – for political purposes – my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’
What really made the exchange, however, was Mondale’s response – perfectly framed in the background by the TV cameras – as he giggled with unreserved glee at his adversary’s joke as if he was on a sketch show. Mondale later admitted that was the moment he knew he had lost the election. And what did he do? He laughed along with everybody else:

‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign’

It’s tempting to conclude that the golden age of debate is now in the distant past, but there are still those who understand the importance of dissenting voices in a democracy. Witness how Barrack Obama lectures a partisan crowd on allowing other people to be heard as a heckler interrupts his speech in support of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign:

‘Don’t boo – vote!’

Obama was nothing if not consistent in his defense of every citizen’s right to freedom of speech:

‘Part of free speech is you being able to speak – but also you listening.’

And always with good humour

‘You kind of screwed up my ending, but that’s OK.’

This stuff, as Obama states, is important. It’s not just about being polite. The history of thought is littered with disagreement, argument and debate. It’s what philosopher Karl Popper refers to as ‘Conjecture and Refutation’ – whereby humanity’s intellectual progress is propelled by suggesting theories and then disproving them. In other words, by arguing. But arguing isn’t calling someone a Nazi. Discussion isn’t a ‘stumbling block in the way of action’: blocking people is.

As Plato said, ‘Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’. So to reach knowledge, first we have to let people voice their opinions. You can’t disagree without listening first.