Justin Caruso: Students should argue about politics more often

There’s something wrong with the way students argue. Yes, GW is consistently ranked the most politically active school in the country, meaning we’re engaged and we’re informed. But we don’t argue enough.

It may sound like an odd thing to say about GW, since any outsider looking in would probably guess that our students debate regularly. But I’ve found that instead of taking time to thoughtfully debate issues or positions, students just talk, talk, talk – and nothing comes of it. We either argue too emotionally, or avoid arguing at all. But we rarely argue with each other in any substantial way – through facts, evidence and well-supported claims.

Our Facebook comment threads, our Twitter wars, our dorm-room discussions, and most importantly, our classrooms, are full of a whole lot of talking, but not not much listening or true debating. To combat this, we should become more open and more informed. Students should engage in polite and informed argument – both in class and on social media – more often.

Try debating with classmates more, and you’ll be surprised to find you get along better afterward. I have friends all across the ideological spectrum, and I can attest that civil arguments strengthen friendships, make relationships more exciting and help me consider other points of view more easily.

Right now, students often assume their peers either agree with them, or are afraid to stir up controversy in class. When the uncomfortable truth occasionally emerges that close friends or acquaintances may indeed have opposing political views, we ignore it, rather than make trouble. But being quiet makes our discourse stagnant.

Avoiding verbal conflict in the name of keeping the peace isn’t just immature – it’s bad for the quality of discourse at a university. Arguing is how we assert our independence and form opinions in a crowded and confusing world. It’s how we suss out our own convictions and beliefs. And most importantly, it’s how we share our thoughts, learn new facts, prove others wrong and get proven wrong.

Some of us may be afraid to start arguments because we assume we can’t change someone’s opinion. If a student is a Republican, they aren’t going to suddenly love a Democratic policy just because someone argues with them. But contrary to popular belief, avoiding arguments doesn’t make political polarization better: It actually makes it worse, since it prevents people from learning anything new.

Perhaps some students feel that arguing shouldn’t have much of a place in the classroom, as they aren’t paying tuition to hear others argue. But I believe that a big part of college is more than sitting and taking notes – it’s participating and engaging with each other. If our arguments were constructive and valuable, arguments would not be a distraction, but instead a central part of the college learning experience.

Often, though, arguments that take place in our classes are pointless. In too many classes, the potential for a good discussion is suffocated by personal attacks or off-topic points, and students often refuse to consider the possibility that the other person may be correct. This is true of people of any political persuasion: I’ve seen both conservative and liberal students alike be dismissive and condescending to people with differing views.

Now, I’m not advocating being a pest. At a certain point, the conversation is over, and it’s time to get back to the lecture. Nobody likes a person who constantly stirs conflict or doesn’t let it go. And frankly, after a long day or studying or going to meetings, most people are not itching for an argument. But if done right, debates can be constructive.

We have to argue efficiently, and argue with the intent of understanding others’ positions. We must know the true point of the people we disagree with and why we disagree with them, instead of trying to knock our opponents down without even understanding why they feel the way they do.

To argue well, we have to think more about what a good argument should really look like. Peter Loge, a political communication professor, said it’s worth considering whether an argument should actually be more like a dance: cooperative, rather than combative.

“The point of a dance is to create a new thing from two people moving together,” Loge said. “In this light, together both arguers advance knowledge or ideas, together they make a new thing that neither saw before. Arguing thereby becomes cooperative rather than conflictual.”

Arguing really is a dance that we do. In many ways, it may not always be polite or comfortable, but it is an essential part of society. And much like a complicated dance, the uncomfortable exercise of arguing has to be done right, with a lot of preparation, patience and willingness to follow the person opposed to us.

Justin Caruso, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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