Reopen the Marketplace of Ideas

Recently, during a relatively pleasant dinner in a most unremarkable restaurant, the conversation shifted (ever so briefly, as is the case now, with people treading on political, religious and morally contentious social issues as if they were the mental equivalent of hot coals) to an ‘in or out’, ‘yes or no’ determination of my position on same sex marriage and abortion — the bellwethers of moral standing. I was asked, first, “do you support same sex marriage…yes or no”, and second, “are you in favour of abortion?”. The first question was predictable and, the yes or no option, a trendy and lazy proposition that is used to morally grandstand. The second question struck me, not so much for the subject (again, a rather predictable demarcation used by a sluggish interlocutor looking for a cheap point rather than a meaningful exchange of ideas), but by the nature of the question itself; “are you in favour of abortion?” My first thought was, how can anyone be in “favour” of abortion? To be in favour of it equates to wanting more of it, does it not? I understand wanting to make it legal, but to favour it seems odd. Again, a contentious and difficult issue pertaining to one’s conscience was framed as a question with only an ‘in or out’ option. Whilst the intention may have been to get a quick answer with which to assess my political leaning and avoid a protracted discussion that might risk wounding a long-held belief, it is a grassroots example of the way our society is replicating politics (and vice versa) by polarising ideas and issues and enforcing a partisan approach to discussions and questions.

Our marketplace of ideas has been closed for some time and we are being forced to take debate from the fast food window of social media, and other outlets of quick and convenient information. Our opinions and ideas are being reduced to a convicted yes or no, removing the ability to convince others and, more importantly, remain open ourselves to being persuaded by a stronger argument. When we shut out alternative ideas and arguments against our own we remove rational and pragmatic thinking which ultimately pits ‘one’ against ‘the other’ in a vacuous debate that can only lead us to the outer extremes.

Politicians are often the first blamed for the current state of debate; we look at politicians as somewhat hapless and consider anyone but a politician to be a better option for politics (an ironic smugness); it is easily forgotten that representative politics only reflects the society from which the representative members come. However, this may be an inconvenient truth and it is easier to have a group to blame for the current malaise. But, the truth is, we are all to blame; society as a whole — which includes all — has changed and we have become collectively idle when it comes to thinking, and offering our ideas to one another and accepting the ideas of others back for consideration; perhaps we are too time poor and the volume of information insurmountable that it is easier to pick YES or NO and shout at the other.