The lost art of persuasion and debate

Last week, news came out that one of the Stubenville rapists had regained a position on the football team. As outrageous as this news is, I had one very simple question for someone who posted about it:

Since most rapists aren’t sent to jail for life, how do we go about reintegrating them into society once they’ve served their sentences?

This didn’t sit well with the poster of the article. In questioning the article at all, in this person’s mind, made me a rape apologist. I was told in no uncertain terms that this person’s inclusion on a sports team was wrong, and that the subject was “not open for debate”, and then summarily blocked on Twitter. Just like that, an opportunity to discuss public policy and violent crime in our communities was gone.

It seems that in the past few years, we have more or less lost our tolerance and willingness to have a conversation about tough issues. Instead of talking with one another, we talk to one another, or over one another instead. As our world has been reduced to 140-character discussions, nuance has lost its place in the world. Discussions are now black and white, this or that, us or them.

It’s not as though the world has ever been a panacea of openness and discussion. The famously free discussions of Greece were marred by the lynching of Socrates by an angry crowd. The forums of Rome may have been free for topics of the day, unless, of course, you critiqued the Emperor (or happened to be a Christian). True discussion and debate has always been elusive.

And yet, I doubt there has been a time in history where our discussions were so one-sided and focused so much on the us versus them mentality, where nuance is discounted and people are labeled for asking questions.

Fact: the average amount of time that a rapist spends in prison is 65 months. The average time that someone spends in prison for sexual assault is 35 months. These are just 5 years 5 months and 2 years 11 months, respectively. That means that a 25-year-old man who is sentenced for rape will be free from prison just after he turns 30.

Think about it. Just about every rapist will eventually be freed from prison.

It’s an uncomfortable thought that criminals, especially sexually violent criminals, can live next door. They can be anywhere: our parks, our churches, our neighborhoods, the restaurants we frequent, the jogging paths we take. And yet, this uncomfortable truth plays out every single day, as violent criminals are released from our prisons and back into our communities.

And this begs the question: what do we do about it? This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky Socialist bullshit question here; this is a legitimate public policy problem, and one we haven’t solved. People convicted of crimes (any crime, not just violent or sexually violent crimes) have a statistically more difficult time finding gainful employment, housing, access to services and more. They tend to be poorer, have fewer opportunities, and often end up back in prison as a result. So far, we’ve been really bad at reintegrating criminals into society. And so, asking the question about what to do with them isn’t out of line.

And yet, in a black and white world, there’s no place for this kind of nuance. You’re either against rape or for it. Against strong sentences or for them. Against punishing people, or for it. There isn’t room for rehabilitation, community healing or any of that nonsense. You’re either a victim’s advocate or a rape apologist.

This push against nuance should really frighten us. There are lots of things happening in our world today, lots of really bad things. And yet, most if not all of them are fraught with nuance. Many of them don’t have “right” answers.

It’s easy to say “you stand with Michael Brown or you’re a racist!” It’s easy to hate the cop that shot him, or to think that all the protesters are thugs. And yet, it’s not that simple. Reports consistently indicate that most of us would like both Michael Brown and the officer who shot him, if we knew them individually. It’s entirely possible that they would like each other! Demonizing one side or the other helps us feel better, but it doesn’t make the world better.

It’s easy to say “Israel should stop killing civilians.” And it’s easy to say “Palestinians should stop shooting missiles at Israel.” And yet, it’s difficult to admit that the entire event is fraught with nuance, history, grudges, and more. Picking a side feels easy, but it isn’t. There’s nuance everywhere.

And that’s the problem in the world we have today. It’s really easy to make assumptions, to pick sides, but really hard to break away from the mold and take a step back.

So what can we do about it? First, we ought to stop using Twitter as our primary means of discussing complex issues. 140 characters makes a great news dispatch with a photo, but a lousy means of sharing ideas or carrying out nuanced conversations. It eliminates rhetorical devices that are effective in arguing, and leads to “us versus them” mentality almost by default.

Second, it’s important to recognize that each one of us can’t possibly have all the information. Someone else might know something we don’t. And that person, even if we disagree with them, is worth hearing out. Sure, they may be completely wrong. Their opinions may offend your sense of morals. You may even hate them personally. And yet, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Finally, it would really benefit the whole world for us to have just a bit more understanding of one another. Humans, as a whole, disdain gaps in our knowledge or information, to the point where we’re willing to make assumptions or guesses, and those assumptions turn into “facts” in our minds. But recognition that knowledge is elusive, and acceptance of “I don’t know” as a valid response will help us to have greater understanding of each other. Refusing to make assumptions means taking people for what they’ve said or done, rather than what our minds assume they’ve said or done.

Debate requires us to hear one another, to consider their opinions, and to focus on their thoughts. Persuasion requires us to help others to reconsider their thoughts, and to focus on areas where they may be inaccurate. This requires patience: the patience to listen, the patience to learn, the patience to hear ideas that we may dislike or even loathe. It requires us to be willing to patiently educate those who have an incomplete picture, and to be educated by those who have different knowledge and experiences from ourselves. It’s much harder than deciding in 140 characters that someone is a rape apologist or a racist. It’s also far more rewarding.