I also agree that the caustic character of our community's disagreements about education is unfortunate. It inhibits rational debate and deliberation about controversial topics. And for my money, I believe it is much more important for someone to engage in public discourse and argumentation properly than for that person to have the correct opinion about a particular subject matter.
So, how should rational deliberation take place? The best place to start is to understand what happens when real communication has taken place (I'm channeling my inner J. Habermas, in case you can't tell). If I've successfully communicated something to Person B, here's what must have happened:
- I said something that meant something.
- I presented something that I believe to be true.
- I presented something that is about our shared world together.
- I wanted to reach an agreement with Person B about my statement.
What do I mean by that?
If someone is incapable of uttering meaningful sentences, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I believe that Person B is not presenting what she takes to be true, but only what is political expedient, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I believe that Person C only makes a certain claim because of his geographical location, then there can be no rational deliberation. If my goal in making my claim is to make another person look bad, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I assume that there is always a malicious ulterior motive lying behind each of Person D's statements, then there can be no rational deliberation.
If you say you support rational deliberation, then you should engage in public and private argumentation in accord with these assumptions. You must assume that people are presenting ideas and thoughts they believe to be true. You must assume that they are trying to convince you that their view is right. If you can't do those things, then you are inhibiting rational deliberation.
So, I encourage all of us, for the sake of rational deliberation and rational debate, to assume the best about our interlocutors. Particularly those with whom you disagree. Assume that they are presenting what they think is true. Assume that they are expressing their view to convince you or other participants in the dialogue.
But what if your interlocutor is violating these four assumptions? Does that mean that the nature of rational deliberation changes? Does that mean we can stop assuming the best about their arguments? Does that mean that we should respond like for like?
I'm not naive enough to think that everyone is really interested in rational deliberation in this sense. Some people will be trying to manipulate the system. Some people will use strategic means to reach a desired outcome without going through a legitimate deliberative or democratic procedure. In such a case, there is no rational deliberation, since the other person is violating one or more of the assumptions, but at least you aren't the reason why there is no rational deliberation. In that circumstance, we would do well to engage their arguments, to engage in the dialogue assuming the best about them, even if we are wrong.