In American political discourse, there is a failure to distinguish between persuasion and argument that extends to the media coverage of politics and that distorts, sometimes grossly, the public understanding of and response to the issues of the day.
Any student in a composition course that covers persuasion and argument learns that argument is a rather narrow sub-category of persuasion. Whereas persuasion is the attempt to sway an audience’s opinions using any available or necessary means, argument demands that the persuasion be accomplished by establishing and maintaining a reasonable persona and tone and by presenting judiciously selected and credibly framed supporting evidence.
Since in argument one should avoid talking points as one avoids all overused and empty expressions, it should be readily apparent that while almost all of our political discourse is persuasive, almost none of it is actually thoughtful argument.
But our political discourse is even more distorted than that because we insist on asserting that we are arguing over issues that simply don’t lend themselves to argument—that are simply not appropriate for argument. Again, as any composition student learns, these include topics such as the following: matters of fact, which result from a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of consensus; non-issues, which may be matters of public concern but on which the only alternative positions are on the lunatic fringe; polarized issues, for which there are only two available positions; and matters of faith, which require, simply by the very definition of “faith,” a suspension of reason.
So, we are fallaciously trying to argue over matters of fact when we assert that economic data indicates the failure of a particular economic policy even though everyone knows that the data is preliminary and very likely to be revised, sometimes considerably. We are fallaciously trying to argue over non-issues when we assert that national security is a priority or that the purchasing power of the middle-class remains the foundation of American prosperity. We are fallaciously trying to argue over polarized issues when we act as if abortion rights and capital punishment can be discussed reasonably by anyone with strong convictions on either available position on those issues. And we are fallaciously trying to argue over matters of faith when we assert that creationism and evolution ought to be discussed in the same forum.
Debates can, of course, include other kinds of persuasion beyond argument, but if the issue being debated does not lend itself to argument, then the debate degenerates into two competing sets of talking points. Anyone who has ever watched a presidential debate understands completely, then, how terribly misnamed that exercise is.
For arguments require an acceptance of the following three premises. First, there is no such thing as a completely “correct” position; there are only more effectively argued and less effectively argued positions. Second, both sides need to agree on—to stipulate—the meaning of the terms most fundamental to the issue. And, third, the credibility of an argument depends on the willingness to acknowledge that in some respects the opposition does have a more credible case to make—that is, the case needs to be made that the preponderance of the evidence, not all of the evidence, supports the argument (if the latter were true, it would be a non-issue).
So, whatever occurred when Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” attempted to “debate” Ken Ham, the developer of the “Creation Museum,” it was not a “debate.” Ham attempted to equivocate religious convictions and scientific conclusions, and Nye attempted to take the measure of religious convictions as if they were scientific conclusions.
Part of what is at work here is conflicting social impulses: in effect, we are paralyzed by the impossibility of honoring our commitment to respect a diversity of opinion while also honoring our commitment to communicate truthfully and to disseminate accurate information.
Unfortunately, we are reluctant to embrace as “fair” the only viable resolution to this sort of impasse: we must respect a diversity of opinion as long as those opinions do not prevent us from communicating truthfully and disseminating accurate information.
So, if Ken Ham wants to believe that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together and if he wants to establish a site at which he and fellow believers celebrate that belief, one should allow him that leeway. It simply doesn’t matter what individuals or groups of individuals believe—until they begin to confuse evangelism with public policy positions, until they begin to insist that honoring their beliefs requires the rest of us to embrace their beliefs. When they begin to mistake their faith for science, when they begin to insist that their faith be broadly accepted as an alternative to science in the public-school curriculum, then one has not just the right but the duty to argue very forcefully that they have overstepped their rights as citizens to their own beliefs.
One might feel that simply calling a site dedicated to Creationism a “museum” requires a response, but there are all sorts of sites that are called museums. If, however, someone compared the Creation Museum to the American Museum of Natural History, then I would think it appropriate—and not unnecessarily inflammatory—to list all of the other roadside attractions that call themselves “museums,” to illustrate that the arbitrary or even presumptuous choice to call something a “museum” does not in itself lend it scientific credibility.
If it becomes clear that a group such as the Creationists is insistent on overwhelming or ignoring all resistance to religious convictions recast as a political agenda, then one must use all means of persuasion available to counter their assault on truth, including mockery. In terms of Creationism, one must point to the Jurrasic Park films and ask how likely it would be that people armed with primitive weapons would have been able to survive among dinosaurs when the films dramatize how easily those beasts could stalk and kill professional hunters. One must point out, as Lewis Black joked, that embracing creationism as science is tantamount to accepting the Flintstones as a documentary.
But one cannot “debate” this issue. One cannot present an “argument” for evolution over creationism because this is a non-issue. There is no credible evidence—no evidence not based on the fundamentalist religious belief that the Bible must be read as the literal and unequivocal basis of scientific as well as spiritual thought—that creationism is a scientific alternative to evolution. All of the attempts to persuade people that it is such an alternative are nothing more than elaborate rhetorical devices employed to conceal that basic truth.
And if I can paraphrase the Bible, I believe that such exercises in elaborate deception are the province of the devil.