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January 20th, 2003

Vigorous non-dissent

It's always been my theory that one great, and perhaps the best, way to search out truth is by adversarial comparison of opposing theories on either side of a question, resulting in the fabled "competition in the free marketplace of ideas". This is the way our legal system is supposed to work, and to a great extent the way that our political system is supposed to work. In practice, both systems fall short, albeit, in line with the old joke about democracy, they fall less short than many other systems.

But lately I notice that outside the stylized battlegrounds of lawsuits and party politics, so many arguments start with such radically different assumptions on the part of the parties to the dispute that it's very difficult to say that the adversary process advances the ball at all.
I personally learn a great deal through argument and the comparison of opinion. But on-line life in particular seems to present endless paradigms in which the parties to the discussion have such different analytical constructs as to make "debate" virtually meaningless.

I used to have a lot of skepticism for the "mediation" model, in which the parties try to
avoid resolving their disputes with "winners" and "losers", and instead seek a peaceful third way. In lawsuits, particularly in family law, mediation can be a good tool, but I did not see how it could have much application outside the kind of "jousting by design" inherent in the legal process, where the parties can "value" a suit and the discussion is largely "how much" rather than "is it possible?". Outside litigation, where values of positions are less definable, I could not see that consensus could be reached often enough to justify the effort at non-determinative resolutions of issues.

Now, though, I'm beginning to wonder if we don't need a bit more mediation and a bit less dispute. It's not that I am particularly pollyannaish that "if we only talk, it will all be all right".
It's just that when mindsets are so different, as seems to happen so often nowadays,
I'm not sure that any agreement can be reached on anything as to which opinions are strong without strong efforts to mediate common ways of thinking about issues. In particular, I see too many situations in which people who basically think the same lack the common language to express their thoughts. In the Sermon on the Mount, the phrase was to the effect that peacemakers are blessed, because they will be called the children of God. But I'd say instead that peacemakers are perhaps a blessing, because sometimes the fog seems too deep for anything but a mediated solution to solve