Back in the days when I blogged at Townhall I regularly sparred with a group of rabidly angry, quasi-libertarians. During one exchange my adversary characterized a response I made as “knee-jerk,” essentially accusing me of not thoughtfully considering the question or my answer before I responded. That’s a serious insult in my book, so I immediately grabbed my keyboard to shoot back a denial and defend my comment, but in the struggle to articulate my reply I came to the embarrassing realization that he was actually right.
Dang. I hate it when that happens.
I don’t recall the exact comment in question, only that it involved accepted ‘conservative’ lore and that daring to consider I was wrong also brought into question my worldview which was partially premised upon this and other notions that I’d long accepted as fact. That was a pivotal moment in my blogging “career” and yes, I did concede to him that he was right (on that ONE point!), because I happen to believe credibility matters. The experience taught me the importance of taking the time to stop and think and not be so reflexive in debate. In the process I made a few alterations to certain long-held beliefs that I took for granted, and learned the value of carefully forming my own opinions instead of invoking standard partisan talking points.
Sadly - nay tragically - we have become a nation of people who by and large debate consequential topics with knee-jerk thoughtlessness. The blogosphere, opinion journals, Facebook and Twitter are often besieged by inane, misguided, indefensible prattle that reveals a dangerous and destructive level of closed-mindedness, inexcusable ignorance and blind devotion to precious prejudices. That’s not intended to be a blanket condemnation of those mediums as there is plenty of worthy, thoughtful discussion going on as well and that’s a great thing; but certainly the absence of any minimum standards for participation means that self-policing humility is in dangerously short supply. It used to take work – and to certain audiences the demonstration of credibility – to enjoy the privilege of sharing your thoughts with vast numbers of people. Now anyone can do so with a phone or computer, but the heretofore unsung voices of wisdom that have been given life by these tools are too often drowned out by those who spew nonsense. I think about the carefully articulated essays and letters crafted by this country’s founding fathers to debate and express their thoughts on the serious subjects of their time and I just want to shake my head at the realization of how far we’ve fallen in comparison. Am I just glorifying a bygone time and a bygone people or is the disintegration real?
Look at the de-evolution of speech occurring on the campuses of our “institutions of higher learning,” where those who offer to come speak and who are willing to defend their opinions are treated with hostility and violence by those who, in all likelihood, have never heard these speakers articulate what they’re advocating. In liberal-run schools of all levels the mere act of voicing an opinion is giddily applauded, as long as it’s the right opinion of course. In these places where objective thinking and debate are supposed to be taught to young people as part of their passage to becoming adults, we instead see these young people encouraged to crawl back towards the womb, where they will curl up and suck their thumbs in their safe spaces or become tyrannical toddlers, screaming and hurling objects when they don’t get their way. This is both the consequence and the future of the knee-jerk nation. Gone are the days of Abraham Lincoln’s sage advice: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
After years of watching news analysis shows where conservative and liberal guests are brought on to debate the issues of the day, I have given up any hope of ever seeing one side persuaded by the other side’s more compelling argument, even when that argument contains facts and logic that are indisputable. Without missing a breath every salient point is rejected out of hand, as if the speaker is on auto-pilot and just waiting to regurgitate his own talking points. I understand they’re getting paid, one way or another, to represent a certain view no matter what, but I for one wouldn’t be able to stand the embarrassment of standing my ground while my argument is shown to be a failure. But that’s just me.
Naturally readers will be wondering, “What about Donald Trump? Isn’t he a knee-jerk president, what with all the tweeting and all?”
To a certain extent, I believe Trump is guilty of knee-jerk behavior, particularly when he feels personally attacked; but let’s not confuse quick reactions with automatic, thought-free reactions. If one has watched for years as a rogue dictatorship like North Korea menaces its neighbors and the U.S. with threats of attack and progresses closer and closer to having nuclear weapons despite diplomatic efforts, it seems to me the thoughtful reaction, irrespective of speed, would be to treat this serious threat with serious words and actions, which is what Trump has done in my humble estimation. It is the refusal to modify one’s precious prejudices about the sanctity of diplomacy in the face of an escalating threat that strikes me as robotic, and therefore knee-jerk, under this scenario.
I don’t expect that the tide will turn and thoughtful reflection will be back in vogue any time soon. As with anything that involves the Left, there’s a method to the madness. If one actually debates with seriousness and sincerity one might have to concede that one is wrong, and then the mission to co-opt people’s rights is jeapordized. There’s too much at stake to risk that. Thieves and other usurpers of liberty never debate and they never concede any territory.
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