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Editorial: Seeking a return to responsible, productive debate

By Brandi Makuski

Sixth grade, Emerson Elementary School, Stevens Point. Sometime in the 1980s.

Ryan Soroko had just acquired a brand new, shiny dirtbike. It was his pride and joy. He even took off his t-shirt one day to “protect” it from the rain. Another boy, one of the Vercimak twins—I don’t remember which one—had the nerve to “lay a finger” on Soroko’s bike, triggering testosterone-fueled plans for an after-school duel.

I couldn’t tell you who won. I remember both boys were bleeding from their noses or knuckles after the fistfight. But at the age of 12, it was, at least in those days, the gentleman’s way of settling such a controversial dispute while at the verge of adolescence. And the following day, both boys were playing with each other again at recess.

This editorial is not a condonation of violence, nor am I suggesting fisticuffs on the playground or anywhere else. But immature behavior is common when one is immature and hasn’t yet learned to use Big People words: that is, speaking with the understanding that whatever you say can have unintended consequences (and taking responsibility for those consequences), but also an awareness that your tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions all help drive words to an end.

As an adult, one also learns there is a time and place for certain colloquialisms—words and behavior acceptable among friends are not necessarily appropriate in public, or in mixed company. 

Somewhere around 2008, when social media platforms like Facebook became available via mobile apps, those barriers came crashing down, and we lost the ability to include inflection, body language, and facial expressions in the words we posted online. We were now forced to use the poor substitutes of either a pre-selected variety of emojis or an inexcusable number of exclamation marks to dress our words.

But we gained immediacy. We now had the ability to: tell a business or institution—without putting any real thought into it—just how stupid we think they, or their ideas, are; provide the masses with unsourced, unvetted, or incomplete information from an obscure or biased website to support our own ideas; and run another person into the ground with record speed.

Because social media has changed the manner in how we think, we allow the words of a person without any legitimate training in a particular field of study to hold the same weight as someone who spent years studying that particular topic. An intoxicated person could just as easily begin a revolutionary movement by posting a certain comment through beer goggles on a Saturday night. And our words and ideas can be taken completely out of context solely because someone decided to share a screenshot with a third party who is totally unaware of the circumstances within which the comment was made.

Page administrators are often stuck in the middle; attempting to allow legitimate debate in the comment section while simultaneously attempting to ascertain which comments are part of a legitimate debate and which are intended to dismantle the conversation (i.e., trolling). The latter can quickly turn a once-respectable comment section into a sewer, driving away any attempt at civic, and civil, debate, which is the cornerstone of our country.

The result is a lot of negativity, and for many, the seeming inability to judge what is factual and what is not; or worse, taking a specific stance simply because you think someone on social media was being rude to them. It’s a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.

As popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently says in his MasterClass, “One of the great challenges in this world is knowing enough about a subject to think you’re right; but not enough about the subject to know you’re wrong.”

Pick any topic. Trump/Biden, masks/vaccines, partisanship, bike lanes, etc., and watch the fur fly in the comment section as it quickly becomes a who-can-insult-who-the-quickest contest. What the uneducated, ill-educated, or stubborn share as “fact” soon becomes the basis for any number of insults or threats to an elected official, a public employee, or newspaper reporter. It happens every single day. You just don’t always see it.

For those who really believe they understand the facts, that they’re open to new information as it becomes available, and that they’re presenting it all accurately and objectively for the masses, I encourage you to apply to one of our news reporter openings or run for public office. Both are desperate for responsible public involvement.

In the title of this editorial (which is an opinion piece, not a news article, by the way), you saw the words “productive debate.” What does that mean? I suppose it’s subjective for each person, since each may have a different idea of what “productive” means, but generally, it’s the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and legitimate facts, in an effort to inform someone who doesn’t know, or who thinks differently, as a means to reach some final outcome, often a compromise. 

But it is not demanding that your way of thinking is correct and searching the slums of the internet seeking information to support it. 

Productive debate also doesn’t necessarily mean a timid delivery; President John Adams (1797-1801) was well-known for slamming his fist on the table and yelling during his pro-independence arguments at the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was far more solemn in his remarks, speaking only after hearing the debate, but most importantly, formulating his beliefs only after hearing the facts, and from both sides of the issue.

So, whether you’re an Adams or a Franklin, remember that your words do mean something. They can change the world. We encourage you to use them responsibly.

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