Losing touch with the lost art of argument

Layman's Minute

By Ted Furlow

 One day last week, while on the front porch getting the mail, I saw a flier on the ground. It was a thin piece of paper advertising a lawn service, so I bent down to pick it up. Wouldn’t you know I couldn’t get the darned thing off the concrete? I don’t have long nails, I bite them anyway, and I have little traction with my fingers. After stumbling about on the porch for a few moments, failing in every attempt and probably looking like a fool to my neighbors, I stood up, gave my fingers a wet lick, and managed to stick the paper to them. 

 It is hard to accept, but I have worn down my fingertips to the point that they no longer have the grasp that they once did and it is awkward to pick things up. The prospect of stumbling into my dotage without grip is a daunting challenge, so I exercise to keep my hands supple and take meds for the stiffness of arthritis. It is a prophylactic approach, and while I am not too keen on the results, it is better than simply submitting. On the upside, I am not a fool. I’m just someone who has lost touch. 

 As I stood on the porch laughing at my loss of dexterity I wondered where else I might risk losing touch. 

 We are amid a massive shift in our society and are a people divided, with slightly less than one half of voting America sending a winning message to the slightly more than one half of voting America that the status quo will no longer work. This recent exercise in civics has ushered in instant opinion making, single issue focusing, and the birth of “fake news” in what is now being called the “post truth” era. Swell… in my time, not since Mario Savio stood on a police car in the middle of Sproul Plaza at Cal Berkley in 1964 sounding the call for the Student Free Speech Movement, have I seen the start of such a massive adjustment in social and political thinking. 

 Now as then, dialogue through argument has become a casualty. Clearly, there has been no lack of argument over the recent months, but as John Courtney Murray, S.J., reminds us, real argument is a rare and elusive thing. The new normal that passes for argument is simply loud confusion, with whichever side shouts the longest and loudest claiming ascendancy for their position. Murray reminds us that real argument requires civility, an agreement to a shared set of values, and an agreement of sorts to the facts of the issue at hand. 

 This emerging iteration of argument only asks for opinions with facts made up on the run. It has moved argument from an informed, systematic, and civil interaction to a street brawl where winning is everything. It is a place where truth and common sense are casualties, simply the collateral damage of displaced values.

 When I was just a boy, the good Sisters of the Holy Cross taught me the Catholic values to always seek the truth and to never surrender my common sense. In my life, those Catholic values have allowed me to see through the foggy confusion of the “means” of social and political issues to the moral impacts of the “ends.” As I turn my face to this new wind of change I cannot risk losing touch with truth and common sense. If I do, unlike the paper on the porch, I won’t be able to just lick my fingers and pick it up again.

Ted Furlow retired as Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.