The national debate on health care reform touches on just about everything except heath care. For instance, some people have made it a referendum on the appropriate size and reach of government. Others see in it a way to curb the appetites of greedy corporations. Still others have turned the debate into a vehicle to further a pro-choice agenda, causing some to balk understandably at the notion of government-financed abortions. If you can think of a pet ideology, then it has probably been trotted out within the last few weeks. In many ways this national brouhaha continues the themes and fights of last year’s presidential campaigns. Characteristic of presidential-style campaigns, each faction wants to make its point as simply as possible, and each provides supporters with the easily digested, bite-sized talking points: no to big government, no to socialized medicine, no to corporate fat cats, no to poverty, etc.
Just like in a major national campaign, backroom wags work to reduce the other side’s points to the most effective level of abhorrence. As this scenario develops, we eventually get people yelling at one another across town hall forums. The shouting matches, like the recent one hosted by Arlen Specter, are about such things as who loves the country more and who respects the constitution and who feels his or her voice is being squelched the most. All good points, these issues are not making anyone healthier—least of all, Specter who aged before our eyes.
The showdown in Pennsylvania is not really argument though. Oh sure, there was a fight, but not the kind of fight that binds us in “civic amity,” as John Courtney Murray put it. This fight, and the others like it, make more heat than light, and, as a result, the country has gotten pretty heated up over lots of things—but not health care.
Call me naïve, but the reaction to the poll on infant mortality surprised me. I did not know it was such the bête noir of those from a certain perspective. However, the ensuing civil argument has caused me to reflect in a different way on part two of my post on argument and the common good. I have three brief points to make.
First, Americans love harmony; dissent often gets cast as being un-American or unjust. We want to end the discord as quickly as possible. President Obama knows this better than anyone. As long as this national debate continues his approval ratings will drop.Therefore, like Jesus to Judas, Obama urges congress, “Do what you must do, and do it quickly.” (I know it’s not a perfect comparison. Obama is not the savior of the world, and Congress probably wont have a hand crucifying Obama; or will it?) Conventional wisdosm says the quicker we can get this thing to a vote, the less Americans have to watch normally mild-mannered retirees screaming down Senators. It might be good for CNN’s ratings, but it’s not good for the mood of the country. We have a week stomach for disagreement. Even the Obama stalwarts are starting to change their minds, and this is what they elected him to do. The ideas have not changed. Our tolerance for debate just is not what we believe it to be.
Secondly, perhaps Americans could grow more comfortable with argument and debate if the proper purpose and mode of debate were understood. Argument among factions can be a heuristic device rather than an implement to bludgeon others into submission. In other words, when engaged in argument with the idea of discovering the right paths, argument takes on a new sense of purpose. It’s not just about marshalling compromise or settling old scores. It’s about finding a way forward, perhaps a way that was not obvious to either party at the beginning. Argument will uncover the truth. If children in school were taught to fight, by which I mean argue, with the understanding that argument can help in the quest for truth then the nation might be more comfortable with discord, dissent, and conflict.
Of course cynics sit on the sidelines asking, “How will you get everyone to agree that is the purpose of argument.” Fair enough. But cynicism comes from a deep distrust of humanity—a humanity created in the image of God. Moreover, cynicism comes from an even deeper distrust in God—the only one who can wipe away human sinfulness.
Thirdly, establishing trust in the power and purpose of argument will also teach us that screaming at senators, while well within our rights, will not achieve the same thing as people locked together in the kind of argument that produces civic amity. I would suggest a starting place for learning about helpful argument would be the work of Stephen Toulmin. The Toulmin Method for analyzing and building casual (as opposed to formal) arguments helps argument go deeper. Toulmin asks us to analyze the evidence supporting our implicit and explicit assumptions. Often the implicit assumptions girding up our claims are based upon weak evidence; sometimes these implicit assumptions remain forever unspoken and occasionally are unknown to the arguer himself. Sometimes we argue as if we know someone else’s implicit assumptions.
In a subsequent post, I hope to explain and apply the Toulmin Method to parts of the health care debate.