Productive dialogue and political discourse has severely deteriorated since the 2016 presidential election. People are resorting to name-calling, mocking, and even violence instead of trying to have civil discussions. My project this summer under the guidance of Professor Susan Meyer attempted to understand this degradation of public discourse. Taking Plato’s dialogues as an inspiration, our group researched common pitfalls, fallacies, and bad argumentative styles that inevitably stifle conversations. We identified and dissected several failed debates and arguments that we found on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube, and on more prominent sites like Fox News and The New York Times. Our goal was to discover ways to conduct meaningful and rigorous conversations between people with drastically different political and moral views.
My role in this project was to research several debate topics that are both popular and contentious, such as voter ID laws, supporting Donald Trump, and religious violence and terrorism. After identifying the arguments on both sides of a certain topic, I found examples of debates and conversations that went astray. Then, I attempted to isolate the argumentative problems that undermined or weakened those conversations. After that, I wrote a dialogue where two people with radically different political views tried to have a courteous and productive conversation about a certain topic. Using Plato as an example, our dialogues focused on identifying exactly where two people disagree.
Our group met every week to discuss our progress and read our current dialogues. By the end of the summer, we had produced several interesting dialogues that could help others have better and more productive conversations. My favorite part of the project was getting together with the group to analyze our dialogues. Since it was an individualized project, the dialogues were very different stylistically and covered many different topics. I think we all learned better ways to talk with other people about contentious issues while reading our dialogues together.
I learned that writing dialogues, especially dialogues where both parties have opposing political views, is very difficult, and that coming to a clean resolution in the discussion is often impossible. However, I also discovered many pitfalls and argumentative styles that lead to failed conversations, and I will definitely use this knowledge to have better conversations in the future. Overall, this project was very rewarding and not only helped me become a better writer and a more logical thinker, but also helped me identify some of my own biases and shortcomings when making arguments.