The Death of Reason in the Modern Age

I seriously do not think there is anything more frustrating than engaging in an argument or discussion with college students. As a junior in college, I have now somewhat resigned myself to the fact that I am basically at a school for the deaf. Nearly every class I attend, people are following the new fad of trying to win arguments through emotion, while simultaneously hearing the other person but not listening.

The art of persuasion and the skill of sane discussion have been nearly lost in today’s society. The university sphere is one that used to be the arena of debate where young, ambitious minds could test their strength and wit with their peers. Now, the college classroom has become emasculated; logic, reason, and sanity have all been replaced by a single force that has been given far too much strength in recent years - emotion.

Emotion has replaced the desire for truth as the spark which motivates someone to engage in debate. The driving force of argumentation used to be reinforced by logical reasoning and factual evidence. Now, someone uses their personal feelings as the burden of proof for why they are right and you are wrong. But, here’s the thing: many of today’s topical issues revolve around social justice and have been politicized to an extraordinary degree since the most recent presidential election. As a result, issues become personalized to the extent that they become intertwined with our very identity. Every time someone says something which could be construed as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. it is taken as a personal offense, and people’s emotions become highly charged.

Here is where things get sticky. Once emotions become too involved, the focus is taken away from the issue at hand and the pursuit of truth and the conversation is reoriented towards the individual and his emotional security. Although emotional appeals are an effective strategy in persuasion, they do not change or define the truth. And emotions are fickle; they change, even by the minute. If people use emotion as their primary approach to debates, there is very little intellectual consistency and the flow of their reasoning fluctuates so much that we inevitably encounter the one thing that makes all of us livid - hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy in an argument happens all the time - someone says one thing and then changes their stance as it suits their purpose. For example, a young woman claims that she can have an abortion because no one can tell her what she can do with her body. Someone counters that idea by saying that she does have control over her body, but that she does not have control over the separate and distinct body of the baby residing in her womb. A very common reply would be something like this: “So, you’re telling me that if a girl is raped, then you are just going to force her to have the baby?” If you look closely, the girl poses a valid question regarding rape as it is another pertinent variable in this equation. That is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that the young woman never addressed the counter argument regarding the presence of a separate and distinct person inside her. We do not know if she accepts that the baby is a person or if she believes that her decisions somehow trump the baby’s right to life. This young woman falls into the very common practice of responding to a logical question with an emotional deflection.

Emotional reasoning and argumentation cause frustration and often result in an unresolved discussion. When a response is purely emotional, it is essentially impossible for the argument to stay on topic or to follow one line of reasoning. It is equally difficult for both parties to listen to or assimilate the opponent’s ideas when their beliefs are challenged. So much emphasis on feelings can also kill discussions before they have even begun. So often I find myself faced with error or an attack on the truth but I bite my tongue because I fear the consequences of challenging the status quo in a liberal environment. Unfortunately, that is what most colleges are breeding: a space where only “accepted” opinions can be shared and confrontational opinions are considered hate speech. An article from The Atlantic published in 2015 states, “The current movement is largely about emotional well-being […] It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. […] It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse”.

This is the sad reality that we must face. We must do what we can to fight against a culture of ever-changing emotion, no matter how difficult. The only strategy which I have found somewhat effective is to remain calm in the face of emotion...for if you begin to play at their game, you’ve already lost.