Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Open debate and closed minds

I recently read an article in the Telegraph that uses logic so backwards that I had to reread it two times to ensure that I wasn't mistaken.  Even after the third read I'm not sure whether the article is sincere because the article is a textbook example of Poe's Law (that it is impossible to differentiate between religious extremism and an exaggerated parody of religious extremism).  The article discusses a recent decision of the University College of London's student union to require any presentation on the issue of abortion by student groups to invite both pro and anti-choice speakers.  Thus a pro-choice rally must invite anti-choice speakers and vice versa.

Christine Odone, the author of the Telegraph article argues that requiring every presentation to have speakers from each side will "shut down all intellectual questioning . . . ."  Odone and I must have very different ideas on what intellectual questioning is.  Whether abortion is morally acceptable is a matter of moral belief that is debatable and is a contentious issue today.  This is not an issue of fact where the evidence all stands on one side (such as the debate of whether the earth is flat or round).  It is an issue that is debatable with no clear answer.

Forcing individuals to be exposed to a differing viewpoint and step outside an insulated world of like minded individuals is a powerful tool for increasing intellectual questioning.  It is thus absurd to argue that requiring debate will stop intellectual questioning.  Odone seems to think having an open mind means being able to completely ignore the arguments of the other side.  The only way her arguments make sense is if she believes the pro-abortion stance is so much stronger and well reasoned that debate will result in conversion of all anti-choice to pro-choice thus ending intellectual questioning on the issue.

However, there is an actual issue residing in this resolution of the UCL student union.  The issue is whether forcing both sides to be presented on a contentious issue is actually an acceptable method of debate.  After all this is the same "teach the debate" technique that creationists in the US are trying to use to push creationism alongside evolution.  However, there is a big difference between evolution controversy and abortion controversy.  Evolution is an issue of fact (whether or not the evidence supports evolution) and the facts all lay on one side.  Teaching the actual evolution debate would require demonstrating to children why evolution makes so much more sense (in light of the facts) than creationism.

Abortion on the other hand is a subjective moral belief and thus there can be legitimate debate on either side of the issue.  Exposing people to the other side of an issue is a good technique for creating intellectual questioning.  However, I feel that there is something improper about limiting a resolution such as this to just abortion issues.  Thus, I can (slightly) understand why Odone feels that universities are "anti-christian" with resolutions such as this that are targeted primarily at countering religious anti-abortion beliefs.

If the student union wishes to ensure that students are exposed to both sides of an issue why haven't they created a resolution that requires all debates on moral issues to include a speaker from both sides?  As it stands, the choice of the student union to specifically target abortion and not all moral debate demonstrates a biased stance on the issue.  If the student union really wants to encourage critical thinking and debate on issues then they should require such debate on all moral issues.

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