Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo spoke to TEDx Rapid City last month on persuasion, the Internet, and penguins.
Penguins is Vargo-speak for high school debaters, whom Vargo has often coached. Vargo identifies three major impacts of the Internet on civil discourse: loss of civility behind the shield of anonymity, more frequent reduction of complex arguments to straw-man headlines, and an explosion of decentralized, deprofessionalized media streams enhancing confirmation bias (a.k.a. the echo chamber that tells people they’ve been right all along instead of expanding and challenging their beliefs). Vargo says that if we “want to survive this age” and enjoy “more intelligent, rational, civil discourse,” we need to be penguins—i.e. debaters:
- “Make people sign their work”—High school debaters must offer sources for every bit of evidence they use. Vargo says accountability is always preferable to anonymity.
- “Go to the source”—High school debaters dig into their sources. Don’t take a loud speaker’s word on everything. Follow the fundamental blog ethos and see for yourself what sources are saying. (This is an upside of the “truly democratic, unbelievably fragmented” decentralized media: instead of having to rely on what the TV tells us, we can create our own reporting, complete with original sources easily accessible through hyperlinks.)
- “Know your enemy”—High school debaters must be equally conversant in the arguments of both sides of an issue. South Dakota Democrats commit intellectual malpractice if they read nothing but Dakota Free Press, just as South Dakota Republicans do if they read nothing but Dakota War College. You can have your preferred media, but you have to at least keep the windows open in your echo chamber so you can hear what your smartest opponents are saying.
Vargo likens debaters to penguins because both are “always overdressed, frequently ridiculed, but surprisingly graceful in the correct environment.” Being a penguin may not be easy, but it’s necessary for positive public discourse.