Looking for a new way to define ‘debate’

I’m not sure what I’m about to say is realistic, but I think it merits some thought. It occurred to me as I was listening to a fellow speaker on a panel discussion in which I participated this week in Arlington Heights. The speaker, Jeannine Love, a social policy professor at Roosevelt University, was answering a question from a young person in the audience who was seeking advice on how to interact with her peers in a way that might help her engage with them more constructively, especially when they disagree about a topic,

“I think one of our problems is that we tend to think in terms of debate,” Love said. “We’re not trying to share ideas or learn from the other person, but as soon as we finish our point and they start making theirs, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next. We’re not listening to them. We’re just focusing on our own ideas.”

One  of the problems with a debate is that, virtually by definition, the point is to win. In theory, people listening to debates ought to be expecting to grow intellectually by hearing the compelling arguments both for and against a question. As a practical matter, the participants in a debate ought to know whether they won or lost just as distinctly as the players of two baseball teams know the outcome of a game or two chess players know who won and who got checkmated. But this is not how debates work. The participants, as Love said, are thinking more about responses and clever or emotional word play, and audiences tend to cheer the side with which they identified from the beginning and jeer the opposition.

Thinking about Love’s remarks after the program, I wondered if there’s a way to revise how we think of discourse in an open democratic society. We generally have – or at least I’ve often had – a tendency to think that a great strength of free speech is that it permits open competition in the marketplace of ideas. Presumably, out of that open competition, the most appealing or compelling ideas win and rise to become dominant.

But in the realm of ideas – especially on issues like taxation, immigration, equality, economic policy and countless other complex topics – “winning” and “best” aren’t always the same thing. The need to “win” an argument, to personally feel right, often clouds our ability to acknowledge the strength of someone else’s position or the weaknesses in our own. It seems counterintuitive, but is there a way to think of argument as a form of cooperation? Wouldn’t it be interesting if two people arguing over welfare or the minimum wage or political term limits or even something as divisive as gun control or abortion could think of themselves as trying to help each other get the right answer rather than trying to personally prove their point or win the debate?

No, perhaps it’s not realistic. I’m not even sure what such discourse would look or feel like. But what we’re doing sure doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Give it some thought the next time a news story sets your teeth on edge or you take up your pen to change the world’s mind with an incendiary letter to the editor or personal blog. Who knows? If more of us could find a way to do it, we just might all end up winners.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.