A matter for debate?
Over the summer a few eyebrows were raised when a British Member of Parliament tweeted ‘We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act’. It was in the context of a complex set of considerations and perspectives about how secure or fragile may be the set of rights accumulated by citizens over time, especially in the addressing of historical disadvantage. This comment, perhaps ironically, generated a debate all of its own accompanied by a string of wry observations that engaging in debate and the discussion of ideas form the very essence of an MP’s job.
It may be something of a truism, but it did strike me that debates these days, whether held as public discourse or ad hoc between individuals, are seldom edifying but instead merely rehearse preconceived, fixed positions without serious intent to assimilate, learn, refine and improve for the benefit of both – or all – sides. It betrays a brittleness and, at bottom, a fear that one’s own arguments may lack a true foundation when challenged.
I have never been a confident debater in public but do enjoy a good discussion amongst friends and colleagues. A wise thing I was told as a youngster is that the debater with the greatest integrity is the one who can successfully characterise an opponent’s in terms unarguable to the adversary before advancing, hopefully successfully, counter arguments. The point is to show curiosity and respect and an openness to the framing of another perspective – and even to concession and amendment of one’s own as a result.
Whatever one’s perspective on the great political and social challenges facing society today, I would be surprised if many people can cite instances where debating has been pursued with such principles and my own view is that we are all much the poorer for it.
But a call to conduct debate in a constructive spirit is not the same thing as questioning its essential adversarial nature. A thoughtful set of comments about what it calls the “forgotten art of progressive debate” can be found at medium.com (https://medium.com/@concoda/the-forgotten-art-of-progressive-debate-b34ee5ef15f2 which is behind a paywall but with a couple of free views beforehand). Its central premises are that “engaging in conflict is vital for progressing as an individual, but you don’t have to turn it into battle” and “arguing [is] a tool to make a meaningful impact on how other people see the world, regardless of whether you believe they think your ideas are wrong, because to change society, you need to be heard”. Amen to these.
As well as the oft heard entreaty to avoid ad hominem attacks, the author recommends avoidance of any sense of superiority and self-righteousness and describes other aspects of a debating manner focused on the best outcome, not merely the winning. I would recommend perusal of the article and perhaps reflection on how each of us can look for better outcomes to disputation in the future.
I suspect there is more that can be said about why certain subjects seem to be off limits for effective debate or where one side asserts “the debate is closed”, but perhaps that’s for another day.