As we approach the holiday season after a contentious election year, many will feel themselves embroiled in dinnertime discussion with friends and family. There will no doubt be many fights that break out over champagne, apple pie and Christmas presents: brother against brother, father against child, daughter-in-law against wacky aunt. Those who seek to preserve a harmonious atmosphere will try to observe the conventional wisdom that it is rude to discuss religion and politics over supper but when the booze flows, the tension grows. Thus, the dreaded “holiday political debate.”
Debate can oftentimes generate more heat than light; rather than illuminate a particular issue, people get burned when others disagree with them. Debate serves a vital purpose, though: it allows a person to present their case before a skeptical audience and to thereby confront the premises that they may take for granted. Anyone interested in their own intellectual honesty should not be afraid to participate in a debate with honest opponents. Instead of avoiding debate, I propose people learn to engage in it constructively and get better at it.
I am interested in addressing three distinct questions when it comes to debates:
- What are the essential characteristics of a debate?
- How should one conduct oneself in a debate?
- What is an objective measure of success for participants in a debate?
Let’s answer the first question. A debate centers around a single issue and involves at least three distinct parties: two presenters and an audience. The presenters represent two opposing views on the issue in question and the audience represents those that are not fully committed to one of the two views. It is crucial that we have these three ingredients and if any one of them is missing, then the nature of the conversation changes and it is not longer a debate. If there is no audience and each person is giving their own take, then you have a discussion among equal participants and the necessary persuasion element is gone from the situation. If there is only one presenter, then you have a lecture where one person is educating or explaining a topic that they are knowledgeable about to an audience that is mostly listening and absorbing material.
Note that the size of the audience is irrelevant to the classification of something as a debate: so long as there is a third party to listen and be convinced, it does not matter whether the audience fills a stadium or a kitchen table. Note further that there may be more than two individuals serving as presenters per side, and there may in fact be hidden presenters lurking in the audience. What I mean here is that the moment a person advances an argument in favor of one side or another, they have moved from the audience to one of the presenters’ camps. This is typical of informal debates, when two people start the debate and bystanders start “ganging up” on one of the two presenters. In this instance, the presenters must honestly acknowledge that any person buttressing the arguments of one side at the expense of the other are no longer members of the impartial audience. In extreme examples, the “debate” may actually not be a true debate since there is no audience and everyone is already more or less dedicated to a particular position.
Shouldn’t we expect the audience to shrink as the debate progresses and people are convinced one way or another? I believe the answer to this question is no, because opinions on weighty issues are not formed overnight and people have varying degrees of certainty in their beliefs. When we take a particular issue, each audience member will likely be inclined to one side or another; this is to be expected. Audience members can have an opinion at the start of a debate and sympathize with one of the two sides. However, it takes a certain amount of conviction to be able to enunciate one’s position and advance arguments to support it in the face of a challenge.
There is a clear distinction to be drawn, in other words, between a person that simply agrees with a particular position and a person that agrees with a particular position and can rationally defend it in a debate. It is likely that the person who presents arguments to support a position has been in the dialogue and has at least a cursory understanding of the opposing position, whereas a person that merely agrees may be open to persuasion when they hear the other side. This is what distinguishes an audience member from a presenter: a presenter is confident enough in their belief to put forward an argument while an audience member is not.
Now, onto the second question: How should one proceed as a debate participant? As an audience member, it is important to raise questions and challenge those arguments that are unclear or seem incomplete. As a presenter, there are several guidelines that I think merit observation. Not only will these rules make a person a more respectable presenter, but it will also lead to fewer emotional outbursts and fights.
The first rule to observe when engaging in debate is the so-called “principle of charity” which states that one ought to interpret ambiguous arguments from opponents in as rational a manner as possible. That is, when a presenter in a debate makes an argument that could potentially have multiple meanings, we are to take the meaning that is most rational, consistent and free of falsehoods and fallacies. In this way, we avoid caricatures of the opponent and ensure that we are arguing against their actual position and not a straw man.
To consider an example of this principle, suppose Alice and Bob are arguing whether it is proper to use corporal punishment on children that misbehave. Alice may argue that it is immoral to hit children as a form of punishment and Bob may argue that spanking a child when they have done wrong on occasion is crucial to getting the child to respect authority. The principle of charity dictates that both Alice and Bob should assume that the other person has the best interests of the child in mind when they discuss whether corporal punishment is useful or not to raising children, unless there is clear evidence that this is not the case. The point in disciplining a child in the first place is to aid in his development, so the rational presenter would argue their case with this goal in mind.
The second guideline in debating properly is to recognize and respect the free will and intellect of your opposing presenters, and to let this shape your expectations. Individual presenters have a choice to participate in a debate or remain silent as members of the audience. Nobody can force a mind to operate; arguments can only be marshaled by a thinking consciousness, and people need some amount of courage to effectively present a position in front of an audience, no matter how small or familiar it is. When a person is willing to participate as a presenter, it is incumbent on their opponents to assume that they have at least some familiarity with the issue outside of their own position and that it is likely arguments will not convince them overnight.
This point is so crucial it merits repeating: do not expect to convert opposing presenters with your arguments in the heat of a debate. For each argument that you offer, your opponents have either heard it or they have not heard it. If a given argument was known to your opponent before you advanced it, then it was not sufficient to convince them before and so there is little chance it will convince them now. If a given argument was not known to your opponent, then it will take some time for them to digest the argument and come to accept the full implications of it. Thoughtful people who care about ideas need to integrate new arguments and data with their previous understanding of the world, and this takes time and reflection. People are not often willing to engage in reflection in the presence of an audience that is judging their performance as a presenter.
This leads naturally to the third rule to follow as a presenter: aim for the undecided audience with your arguments. Treat the audience as though it were a group of students, hungry for your instruction on the subject at hand. Provide the clearest case for your position, and point out the holes in your opponents’ arguments. Furnish the audience with resources they can google if they wish to learn more, such as books or articles. One encouraging indication that you have performed well as a presenter is if you get questions from the audience, because asking questions is a sign of an active mind. You should answer audience questions to the best of your ability and admit when you are not sure what the answer may be, because people who are eager for the truth appreciate genuine effort that is free of pretense and arbitrary assertions.
Finally, when a debate is over how do you gauge your success or lack thereof? Objectively, we have established that it is unrealistic to convince opposing presenters during a debate. The audience should be your target, not the opposing presenters. To this end, compare the audience after the debate with the audience before the debate. How many people changed their minds? How many people started in agreement with your opponent, only to have one of your arguments plant a seed of doubt? How many people asked questions and were genuinely interested in the implications for accepting your position? These are all important questions to ask and are the proper way to objectively assess your performance in a debate as a presenter. If one considers a situation where you are the only advocate for your position and there is no audience, it makes sense to set your expectations for immediate converts low.
To summarize, one should not view debate as something unpleasant and aggravating. Instead, one should view it as an opportunity to learn something new or to further test your own understanding. Do not evaluate your performance in a debate by whether you persuaded your opponent to surrender, but rather on whether you were able to effectively articulate your case to those undecided people. Not only is this an objective way to assess your debate performance, but it is also takes the edge off of “winning” and respects the intellect and free will of your opponents.