A little debate is a healthy thing

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

I believe that it is my dad’s greatest pleasure to say something so outrageous that all I can do in response is drop my jaw, sputter incoherently and gesture confusedly while he crows about his victory over me.

This has been happening since I was very young and began developing my own ideas about the world. When I was eight, it took little more than a few well-placed and decidedly un-PC remarks to get me to this state of disbelief. I might be able to laugh off his simpler incitements, but I am still game (or bait, whatever) for more complex political debate.

And here’s the kicker: no matter how right I know I am, no matter how well I think I’ve thought out my points, no matter how very wrong my father is, my dad backs me into a rhetorical corner and all is lost. There is no second place, only surrender, in our battlefield of world and political outlooks. My dad always wins.

Nothing frustrates me and my deeply competitive spirit more than the inevitable beat-down my arguments receive at the hands of my father. I hate losing.

I know that it’s good for me, for my opinions to be challenged so thoroughly and often. My dad and I make up our own marketplace of ideas, an open exchange where opinions compete like colas on the open economic market.

In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”  Or, perhaps more simply put, testing our ideas in competition with one another is the best way to find truth.

Maybe comparing ideas to economics isn’t the most perfect metaphor. And when seeking answers to questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer, finding the truth isn’t the point. But the open expression and competition of ideas is so essential to the development of a free society that just the debate is worthy of reverence.

Engaging in open and fierce debate sharpens wits and minds and broadens horizons.  This sentiment might sound like it’s straight out of a high school civics class, but it is one that we constantly ignore. It is so easy to tune out ideas that don’t fit into your worldview, simply because there are so many options, that the process of actually listening to the other side and having a useful discussion is lost.

To face a skillful adversary, to face ideas that are not your own, is a part of participating in a vibrant democracy. Even if the ideas you face come from a man who could give Rush Limbaugh a run for his money.

“Rush Limbaugh is a punk,” my dad says. “I’d kick his ass, intellectually and morally.”

For me, my dad is the loyal opposition, the person who keeps my ear to the ground.

I admit that exchanges between my dad and I have been known to resemble an episode of "Crossfire" more than constructive debate. But I listen, and I fume, and I think about every word he says. I plot counterarguments, I read up on the enemy’s side so I can poke holes.

I want to win someday.

But I know that even if I got a Ph.D. in Socratic rhetoric, I’d still be the incoherently sputtering and flabbergasted loser.

“When you grow up, you’ll see how the world really works, and find out that Pops was right,” my dad says. 

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism. Her father, John O’Neill, is a retired wastewater treatment technician who resides in Georgetown, Ky.

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