Words Mean Things . . . Or Do They?
Andrew Olmsted has an interesting discussion about blogospheric debates wherein both sides talk past one another because they use key terms differently. He is not at all optimistic about this problem:
Even if we were to agree to settle definitions prior to moving on to the question at hand, I doubt we could agree on our definitions any more than we agree on how to deal with the problems we face (or even which problems we need to address). Sure, there are a very small number of people out there who are looking to be challenged, but most of us are just looking to hear other people confirm what we already believe. Attempts to hold discussions between opposing philosophies on the internet are doomed to failure because, ultimately, they’re dependent on people who are looking for answers, not people who think they already have the answers.
There’s a lot to that, of course, and not just online. Presumably, people don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken or watch Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann for an unbiased view of the world, either. People enjoy having their own worldview confirmed in as articulate and entertaining a way as possible.
Still, useful cross-ideological debate does take place in the blogosphere, especially among the more civil blogs on both sides. Most of us begin with default positions, to be sure, and cognitive dissonance and simple inertia make it more likely than not that we’ll be hard to persuade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As former Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt observed, “An open mind is an empty mind.”
A goodly number of us, though, at least weigh the arguments advanced by the other side and the evidence used to buttress them. Over time, that has an impact. Minds have been changed on things ranging from the Bush AWOL story to RatherGate to Iraq WMD to Harriet Miers and Terri Schiavo.
Some issues are more resistant than others, as they are more laden with value judgments and less amenable to falsification. But even there, persistent, civil discourse can change minds over time. My own views on issues ranging from women in the military, gay rights, and the display of the Confederate battle flag have evolved. Occasionally, a single, well-presented argument can cause an epiphany. Other times, it takes years of contrary evidence.
Individual minds are changed. People without a strong opinion get one. Ultimately, the whole culture changes.