Discussion versus Debate

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Image by © Dreamstime

by Sanford Ikeda

I recently watched a couple of debates between libertarians and socialists. The build up to them was certainly exciting, as were the debates themselves. But during and especially after each one I felt deeply disturbed, similar to how I often felt when I debated competitively many years ago. I was reminded of the quip: “You’re not learning when you’re talking.” I pondered my feelings for a while and finally concluded that I simply dislike debate.

I dislike formal and informal debate. I dislike doing it and watching it. I dislike most religious debate, ideological debate, political debate, and sports-talk-radio debate.

Now, there’s a kind of “debate” that I don’t have a problem with in which you try to persuade someone of a position’s merits, much as I’m doing here, and the kind of give-and-take that I describe later. But some might say (argue?) that a true debate involves not only affirming one’s own position but also pointing out weaknesses in one’s opponent’s position, which in turn invites rebuttals from each side, followed by rejoinders, etc. It’s that kind of debate, involving attacks and defenses and counter-attacks, that I’m talking about here.

Such debates are often unavoidable and sometimes necessary. In a court of law, for example, they are indispensable. Even so, I dislike them.

Here’s why.

The goal of debate

Simply stated, the object of any true debate is to win; to achieve victory for your side and inflict defeat on the other. Debate is a zero-sum game: In order for you to win, your opponent has to lose. Debate has that in common with war. As a result, debate is deeply anti-intellectual.

That’s not to say that being a good debater doesn’t require a high degree of intelligence, knowledge, and skill. But so does being a good military commander. A good commander will probe her enemy’s weakest point and exploit it to the max. At the same time she will try to conceal and distract from her own weaknesses.

Likewise, a good debater, because the object of debate is victory by any means short of violence, will zero in on her opponent’s weakest argument, his most outrageous comment or slip of the tongue, and make it the centerpiece of a relentless attack in the hopes of hammering him to submission or making him look ridiculous in the eyes of any spectators. She will twist subtle argument into absurdity. Ad hominem, the straw man, and name-calling may be logical fallacies, but they’re all part of the debater’s arsenal, as are distraction and attributing false statements to an opponent. The goal is not truth-seeking, the goal is to win. At the same time, she will conceal the flaws in her own argument and make her position appear stronger than it really is. Anyone who doesn’t do such things is a bad debater.

I much prefer what I will call “discussion.”

The object of discussion

The goal of an ideal discussion, as I’m defining it here, is to learn (and to teach, which is a form of learning). Unlike debate, it’s not zero-sum, rather it’s win-win. Discussion is like market exchange insofar as each side does it for mutual gain.

Discussion, not debate, is a pathway to intellectual growth. That’s because when we’re alone or talk only to those we agree with it’s hard to see where we’re right or wrong. In fact it’s very easy to delude ourselves into thinking we’re right all the time. So discussion doesn’t mean talking in an echo chamber. Rather, it’s essential to try to see ourselves as objectively as we can. Talking openly to those we disagree with is a good way to do that. But of course it’s hard.

Debate is easier because you never level criticism at your own argument. In a good discussion you have to, at least tacitly. Also, in an ideal discussion you tackle your strongest challenger’s best arguments; again the opposite of debate. You enter wanting to understand the other side, coming not with prepared criticisms and zingers but with honest questions.

Because our default mode tends to be defensive, a good discussion means having to put some energy into the attitude that “We may both be wrong.” You don’t exactly ignore your challenger’s weaknesses. You point them out as part of the learning process, but you also have to accept that her points may not be as weak, nor yours as strong, as you thought.

A good discussion reveals the weaknesses of your argument, to yourself and to the other discussant. To correct an error you first have to be made aware of it and second to admit it. But to make yourself vulnerable by such an admission requires trusting that your challenger won’t hammer you over the head with it. As discourse turns to debate, that kind of trust vanishes.

A matter of degree

I’ve been talking about debate and discussion in their pure forms. Discussion and debate can get jumbled together and real-world discourse usually falls somewhere in the middle. Also, if a debate takes place in the context of a larger discussion, one in which the debaters afterwards openly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their positions as revealed in the debate, then it could serve a heuristic purpose. I sometimes do this in the classroom. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep the distinction between discussion and debate clear.

So when someone says, “You’re not learning when you’re talking,” that’s not true of a discussion, in which the strengths and weaknesses spontaneously revealed to you as you speak can become part of the conversation. But it’s certainly true of a debate, in which words are the weapons you use to talk at, not with, an adversary.
I’m happy to discuss this with you, but it’s not open to debate.

Source: Foundation for Economic Education


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