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On Debate

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This is not an article about the political debate that was on last night, but it does have implications in that sphere. This is about “debate” in the generic sense – a discussion when two or more entities/people/parties disagree on a certain topic and decide to talk about it.

It seems like the majority of discussions (debates, if you will) fall into one of two categories:

1. Politically correct, staid, excessively “civil”, no trace of passion

2. “Your mother is a $!*&# because you don’t agree with me”

Now the first category tends to a bit boring because people are afraid to articulate their true thoughts or emotions for fear of being misjudged or labeled the wrong way. The second, while it makes for interesting television, evokes the wrong set of sentiments. How often does a discussion quickly step out of bounds because one or both parties get carried away with an unnecessary comment or judgment call?

Now, if the purpose of a debate is to understand the other side(s) and achieve consensus, neither of these two extremes achieves it. The first, as I mentioned, is overly civil, and the true reasons and thoughts of the parties involved are not known. Each side simply wants to appear to do the right thing, so the public face is quite different from the private one. Hence it is extremely unlikely that the participants or onlookers will put aside their prejudices and beliefs and achieve results.

The problem with the second category is obvious – name-calling and personal insults do not go hand in hand with understanding, compromise, or consensus. Once this route has opened up there is pretty much no going back. Insulting one's mother as in the example above invokes Godwin’s law: once someone likens you to a Nazi/Hitler or insults your mother, every statement that you made before, no matter how well constructed or how logically or fundamentally correct, is open to question and shaded grey. The best way for someone to belittle your cause or opinion, even if you are the most fervent proponent of the viewpoint, is to let you hang yourself with statements such as these.

Of course it's a logical fallacy. Just because you likened someone to Hitler doesn’t mean that the polar bears are not dying! Unfortunately, you have handed your opponent(s) the leisure to ignore everything (yes, everything) you are saying. The lack of a platform to present your views, or the possibility that you are not taken seriously enough, is potentially more dangerous to your cause.

If you are thinking, "I don’t do that – I never insult anyone that way," let me point out that even if you put forth what you think is a trivial insult, or make a sarcastic comment with negative connotations (“your points of view are certainly ‘interesting’”), you are still guilty of taking the second path. This is because, to someone in the middle of passionately expressing their point of view or defending their faith, there is nothing worse than mockery, no matter how subtle. From then on, it is a free-for-all and matters can only get worse, with every exchange dragging the quality of the arguments lower until [2] (or something very close) is achieved.

Is there no middle ground? Can we not have a passionate debate without falling into the gutter? How’s this as a third option:

3. Each party will passionately vocalize their point(s) of view, listen to the others, bring up facts, arguments, and opinions that counter the expressed views, and then allow the other side to do the same. A bit like a sparring match.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about a “clinical” approach where one party makes a point and then the other spends five minutes thinking about it and then responding with “logical fallacy” arguments and whatnot. That would approach category [1] and would end up becoming boring, both to the participants and to the viewers. Be passionate, go on record with those contentious thoughts and opinions, fervently argue against the points made by the opposition, but without resorting to calling into question the other side's judgment. They have their reasons for picking a particular side (or staying impartial, which is actually harder that you imagine), and there is no reason to question their motives for picking that side or insulting them for doing so.

If they continue to disagree with you, consider it time well spent. Shake on it and walk off, no harm done. You don’t have to have a discussion with them ever again on that or any other topic if you think you will never agree. Perhaps in time, they will come to realize that your point of view is correct and may start to agree with you. If you had chosen method [2] then there is very little possibility that this could happen. All it takes for someone who is a partial or even true believer to harden his stance, is to be belittled or insulted for holding that opinion.

It seems like we have lost the ability to have truly civilized debates (as opposed to the dry, politically correct type mentioned in [1]) in the modern world. Television and the propagation of media (traditional and otherwise) push people to pick [1] or [2], the former because anything can be taken out of context and misrepresented, and the latter because it sells more newspapers and increases television ratings. What must the ordinary man on the street (“Joe Plumber”) think and learn when he sees his peers, his administrators, policy makers, celebrities, commentators, and even teachers and educators around him stick to one of these two extreme techniques? Where are the people who could raise a crowd to its feet with passionate speeches and counter-arguments without ever insulting the other party? Are they a dying, nay a dead breed?

A final note: how often does one see a debate/discussion start with method [1] (or a brief attempt at [3]) and then invariably end up at [2]?

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About Sib.

  • Sibin

    Yeah, I agree…ALL politicians (no matter what side they fall on) seem to not want to answer questions.

  • To answer your last question, I don’t know, but I’m getting tired of politicians talking in circles and NOT answering questions.

  • To answer your last question, I don’t know, but I’m getting tired of politicians talking in circles and NOT answering questions.