On the Merits of Open Discourse

There are some topics that are simply taboo to discuss. Race, religion, sex, and politics are some of these taboo topics. Of course, it depends on the person too, but many will shudder at the introduction of these topics into conversation. It may be seen as rude, awkward, or wholly inappropriate, but why is this so? Are there topics that just shouldn’t be discussed?

There are many reasons why a person may wish not to discuss something. The topic itself may be embarrassing or private in nature. For example, an individual may not wish to discuss their sex-life with a complete stranger. Not all discussions fall into this category, however. Other topics are considered to be offensive, potentially due to some stigma attached to the topic of discussion. Race and gender may fall into this category. Asking a person about their racial experiences may evoke offense as it highlights the ignorance of the questioner or the question is interpreted as perpetuating a particular kind of stigma. Conversations of this nature may be avoided out of politeness. Matters of politics or religion, however, tend to be highly controversial. Given the way that many discussions on these topics become heated, it sometimes becomes easier not to question the positions of others. Sometimes, such as with some religions, certain ideas or concepts are considered sacred and therefor are not to be questioned or discussed. As such, people may avoid the questioning or discussion of these ideas either because it fits with their beliefs or out of respect for those who do believe. Ultimately, the avoidance of a particular discussion is reducible to kind of perceived harm. An individual may avoid asking a question because they don’t want to be perceived as ignorant, just as another individual may avoid answering a question because they don’t want to facilitate a heated discussion. The harm that is potentially avoided, however, usually does not outweigh the harm caused by avoiding topics of conversation.

By avoiding topics of conversation, it creates a culture of aversion and taboo topics that otherwise inhibits critical thinking. If a topic of conversation is embarrassing for a particular individual, then that’s fair enough. A person shouldn’t be forced to discuss their lives or details with anyone if they don’t want to, but this doesn’t mean that the topic itself should be forbidden from discussion. For example, a person wouldn’t need to discuss their personal sex lives or details, but if everyone were to avoid discussing this topic, then the common understanding of sex would be incredibly poor. While this may not seem like a problem, it does have some harmful consequences. One issue with failing to discuss such matters is that individuals who exhibit normal behaviors may otherwise interpret their behaviors to be abnormal (due to the lack of external information). This may cause them great stress or anxiety. Another issue, especially when it comes to policy-making, is that there is relatively little information to base critical decisions on. As a result, decisions are more susceptible to hysteria and superstition than reason. Without open conversation, the common understanding of a particular topic is more likely to be divorced from reality. This is an even stronger reason to support the discussion of offensive topics that involve stigmas, because it’s only with open discussion that stigmas can become undone. By avoiding the discussion of otherwise offensive topics, misconceptions are able to be perpetuated through ignorance. This not only harms individual relationships, but it can dehumanize segments of the population. One such example is in the societal belief that schizophrenics are violent. In reality, most schizophrenics are non-violent and are more likely to harm themselves than others (National Institute of Medicine). If mental health is a taboo subject, however, important discussions about the nature of these illnesses cannot be had. This means that stigmas will continue and those with schizophrenia will be dehumanized. If anything, such offensive issues should be discussed more to inhibit and reverse ignorance.

In the instance of contentious topics, these are topics that usually are heated because those involved are passionate about their positions. What this means is that such positions are likely to be important to individual identity, it may influence the individual’s behavior, and on a collective scale, it may influence governmental policies. Essentially, these topics and their conclusions are of significant importance to the population and, depending on the topic, they may have critical implications for society. Is it then more important to avoid the possibility of heated discussion, or is it more important that these ideas are explored thoroughly so that reasonable conclusions can be drawn about them? It would seem that their pivotal role in individual and collective life would warrant the latter. What seems to be of more concern is facilitating discussion that isn’t heated rather than avoiding the discussion altogether. This seems to require the promotion of humble discourse. As for ideas that are considered to be sacred and unquestioned, not even those should be off-limits. Traditionally, the Catholic Church had held the position that the sun revolved around the earth, and this was not to be questioned. Galileo Galilei objected to this and promoted the theory that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. At this, he was convicted by the Catholic Church as a heretic (Johnston), but he was in fact correct. In the moments preceding the American and French revolutions, it is only by questioning the status quo that the ideals of liberalism have emerged – something that is an integral part of many contemporary nation-states. As both of these examples demonstrate, there were immense benefits to be had by challenging beliefs that were consider to be sacred or off-limits. Regardless of what the topic is or what the reason is for avoiding it, avoiding discussion prevents any critical thought on its content. This can be of immediate harm to individuals (such as through encouraging false perceptions), it can lead to poor collective decision-making, and it can stunt society as a whole. Open discussion is an absolute necessity to critical discussion, and the lack of open discussion is harmful.

The obstruction of open discussion outweighs its benefits because it prevents critical thought on important matters. There aren’t any topics that should be avoided. In instances where a discussion is particularly apt to create tensions, efforts should be put toward promoting positive, humble discussions as opposed to avoiding the topic altogether. Open discussion allows stigmas to be eliminated, biases to be checked, and the truth to be discovered. It educates the population and when the population has accurate information at their disposal, they’re able to make better decisions. As such, the open discussion of all topics must be promoted for the good of the individual and the collective.

 

References:

Johnston, George Sim. “The Galileo Affair.” Catholic Education Research Center. catholiceducation.org, n.d.. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

“Schizophrenia.” National Institute of Medicine. nihm.nih.gov, n.d.. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

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