Only a Real Masochist Would Debate a Zealot

Several years ago, members of Young Americans for Freedom, a militant, ultra-right national student political organization, decided to audit classes at UC Irvine to find out if professors were corrupting young minds with thinly veiled atheism or doctrinaire left-wing teachings.

They attended a couple of my classes, which I found alternately irritating and amusing. I suspect I may have performed for them a little. At any rate, I wrote about this somewhat irreverently in the student newspaper at UCI.

As a result, I was challenged to debate an emissary who would be sent out from YAF national headquarters for that purpose. I'm not sure what it was we were supposed to debate either now or then. I do know that for one of the few times in my life when so challenged, I let judgment rather than emotion dictate my response. I declined.

There were two principal reasons--besides cowardice. First, I'm not a debater. I tend to get both angry and emotional when I hear truth deliberately twisted, and thus I become totally ineffective. My opponent, on the other hand, would have been a hired gun, an ideologue trained in debate and sent around the country to beat types like me around the ears with nonstop rhetoric.

The other reason, learned with great difficulty over the years, is that it is almost impossible for people who tend to see both sides of issues--and live in gray areas where uncertainty is occasionally allowed to creep in--to debate with zealots. Especially single-cause zealots. That's why I find it difficult to have anything approaching a rational conversation with the so-called "pro-life" advocates. I see some grays in this area, and I don't react well to having these people in my face screaming about murder.

These reflections were triggered over the past few weeks as I watched Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) become one of the really hot numbers on the TV talk show circuit. He has been showing up all over the place--on Phil Donahue, on the courthouse steps after the sentencing of Oliver North, on "Crossfire," on the Larry King Show. His positions on issues are familiar to locals: anti-abortion, anti-flag-burning (who supports flag-burning, anyway?), pro-Ollie, pro-Contras. He is, as one TV producer remarked, "perfect . . . because he's informed, opinionated and likes to mix it up." Yeah.

But the problem of trying to present the other side of issues in direct confrontation with such people as Dornan is that you have to use their tactics or perish. And not very many people--including me--are capable of doing that. I have very little sympathy for the masochists who go on talk shows, such as the one conducted until recently by Morton Downey Jr. (and locally by Wally George), and get scalded. Reason simply has no place on such programs. Unless you are able to see only one side of an issue, reduce it to bumper-sticker phrases and logic, and then outshout your opponent, you haven't got a prayer. And even if you are able to do that, you will probably get smashed by someone who does it better.

All of this carries over these days into conversation. I used to think that the old shibboleth about avoiding sex, religion or politics in conversation precluded any conversation at all. But now I'm not so sure; I guess I would add to that, "with certain people." We have friends who hold a wide variety of opinions, and the people we see frequently not only have a breadth of background but can argue their positions with reason and humor rather than heat or rancor--and don't personalize issues by attacking the individual opposing them.

Overkill rhetorical tactics--of which we have more than our share among public officials in Orange County--are remarkably effective with three kinds of people: those who don't know enough about the facts or background of an issue to hold an opinion, those who need desperately to win peer approval and be part of a group, and those whose fears--real or imagined--can be played on by zealots.

Afraid of homosexuals? Limit their rights as citizens. Afraid of the homeless? Drive them away by making it impossible for local support groups to help them. Afraid of crime? Provide every household with an AK-47 so we can revert to the jungle.

Does this mean that only zealots of the opposite point of view can effectively take on zealots in debate? I'm very much afraid that's mostly true. (Consider Timothy Leary vs. Gordon Liddy, Jimmy Swaggart vs. Jim Bakker, Menachem Begin vs. Yasser Arafat, Robert Dornan vs. William Kunstler, or--at the intellectual end of the spectrum--William Buckley vs. Gore Vidal.) Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas or Adlai Stevenson exchanging views with Morton Downey Jr.? Or Robert Dornan?

It's depressing to me to find the same hard-line rhetoric show up in social conversation. We are, after all, a plural society, constructed deliberately to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of opinion in order to weigh, evaluate and debate that opinion, then make decisions in the best interests of the society as a whole. But as minds become more and more closed, the discussion of ideas turns into personal attacks on the person expressing those ideas. As a result, the ideas are lost, and the society suffers. We all suffer.

Perhaps one of the greatest freedoms we enjoy in this country is to change our minds. That represents the highest use of the human reasoning process, and it is being eroded in dangerous and distressing ways by rhetorical hard-liners who refuse to allow the possibility that any other point of view has merit--and believe, with considerable evidence to support them, that they can shout legitimate ideas into submission.

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