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In many on-line debates, a well-informed and well-reasoned argument is met with the greatest scorn, often in the form of responses decrying the arrogance of the person making the argument. These responses are almost always devoid of substance, a string of z’s or a sarcastic announcement that the opponent obviously isn’t intelligent enough to have an opinion. Often a request is made to cease making such well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, to protect those who feel intimidated by them from having to be challenged so discourteously.

Putting the best face on it, one can argue that there is some merit in this objection, that everyone should feel safe to express their own opinion, and that intimidating arguments, such as those found in courts or the halls of academe, are not appropriate in the forums of public discourse. But this fails to understand the value of free speech, its purpose, and what is lost when we are more concerned with protecting arbitrary opinions from factual and rational challenges than we are with, together, arriving at the best informed and best reasoned conclusions.

Those who are most ideological and least analytical are most committed to a view of public discourse as being the futile “exchange” or arbitrarily held and inflexible dogmatic convictions. Those who are most analytical and least ideological are most committed to a view of public discourse as being a robust debate between relatively well-informed and well-reasoned arguments. Among the fundamental meta-debates underlying all other issue-specific debates is the between these competing narratives, with one side favoring entrenched dogma courteously left unchallenged, and the other favoring an increasingly disciplined process of discovery.

There is an ongoing battle on such forums whether we should be more committed to lowering or raising the level of discourse. It might seem odd that anyone could argue that we should lower it, but many implicitly do. It does a disservice to our nation and to our shared challenge of self-governance to take such a position. As uncomfortable as rational debate might be –particularly to those who are least rational– it must be the ideal toward which we continue to aspire.

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