Politics breeds dogmatism when citizens aren’t equipped to argue well

Dear Editor,

Guyana’s democracy is missing a vital component, that is argument. The very foundation of democracy itself rests on argument and discourse. Argumentation is a necessary component of politics that seeks clarification of thought and refining existing or prevailing ideological frameworks. But what is an argument? Certainly, it is not the type of argument that carries with it a negative tone which is associated with everyday use—an angry dispute among persons. An argument in this context consists of premises which support a specific conclusion.

Historically, the practice of argument was used in Athenian democracy to ignite discourse about questions of entitlement (Who is entitled to what and why are they entitled to it?), war (Should we go to war?), and other pressing matters of the state that required resolution. But what follows from argumentative discourse? With every inquiry, there is a question. Since the objective of an inquiry is to discover the answer to a question or problem, it would necessitate the active reflective participation of those who want to find the answer or solution. Of course, one may have an outlook that may seem to be the best response or answer; however, not everyone agrees what a suitable answer should be. And so, each individual or group will defend their own interest in keeping with their own respective outlook.

Civic participation is undoubtedly a necessary component of politics. Citizens are the subjects of political discourse. They are also at the centre of political dispute regarding matters of justice or the recognition of certain inalienable rights. But these matters are not resolved through wishful thinking. Many of these cases are deliberated and argued—sometimes with hostility—for and against in parliamentary and court buildings. However, not too often is argumentation itself at the centre of these debates. Sometimes the personal lives of politicians take centre stage, shifting the issue to a matter of who they are rather than addressing the substance of an immediate problem being presented. Of course, not every issue has a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, but the cornerstone of democracy, and of functional politics, is rigorous debate that requires argument. We can use arguments to discover truth in politics, understand how politicians reason, and whether they employ good or bad reasoning. So, we need to understand the true nature of arguments if we want to have better politics.

But what is politics like when citizens aren’t equipped to argue well? Simply put, politics would breed dogmatism. Dogmatism compartmentalizes people by ideology that often go unchallenged and unexamined, demanding strict adherence to a particular way of looking at the world. Without argument and dialogue, people are left with prejudicial views that may not be true. This leads to the formation of divisive and sometimes dangerous partisan groups that may violently oppose or oppress those who scrutinize their worldview. Moreover, divisive groups tend to have an agenda of their own, seeking to destabilize the political process, usually to their advantage. But we can prevent divisive groups from becoming successful in their malicious attempts to cause political disruption by thoroughly examining what they say and promise, looking for bad logic in their reasoning. If divisive groups are left ignored, the potential for better politics becomes unrealized.

As citizens learn the importance of argument in politics, they can demand their representatives to focus more on issues rather than character, thereby changing the political landscape for the better. Failure to do so postpones genuine national progress. Good practice of argumentation can immunize us from dogmatism and falsehoods, and unites us in purpose to materialize further the elusive ‘common good’.

Yours faithfully,

Ferlin Pedro

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