Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas. That's why.
Everywhere I look these days, I see people championing debate as the only way to preserve our democracy and move society forward. But this valorization is based on the false belief that debate is good thing in every context. Simply put, it isn’t, and it isn’t for one very obvious reason.
Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas.
Some would argue that ideas operate in a sort of marketplace, and that if we allow all ideas to circulate freely, the best ideas will win out. This is simply not true. It would be more accurate to say that the ideas with the most powerful appeal to emotion will win out. As a marketing professional, I can tell you that my entire multi-billion-dollar industry is predicated on the knowledge that appeals to emotion will invariably win out over appeals to some higher-order reasoning.
This is all to say that we shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate debate as though it were good and that shutting it down were bad.
The most vocal calls for debate nowadays tend to come from the alt-right and other regressive voices, which often take on the message of “Hey, I’m just asking questions,” or “Why can’t we put this to a debate?” But it must be understood what a debate fundamentally is, and how it can be distinguished from conversation. Which brings us to my second point.
A debate is a contest.
A debate is a contest in the same way that a fistfight is a contest. The contestants use words instead of their hands, which is more palatable to society. But in essence, a debate does not guarantee the victory of good ideas over bad ones any more than a fistfight does.
So why this valorization of debate? Quite frankly, because we like to see victors and we like to see losers. We like to hone our own debating skills. We like to believe that being a good debater is a sign of great intelligence or superior ideas. We lie awake in bed, algorithmically going over arguments we've had in the past, and thinking about what we could do better if we had it to do over again.
It is our love of blood sport that causes us to return to debate as the proper forum for contesting ideas. Of course, this assumes that contesting ideas occurs in a realm separate from the contesting of space and bodies. We fool ourselves into thinking that a debate is a clash of ideas between two disembodied, ungendered, raceless minds. We mock those who refuse to debate with the easy explanation that they’re simply afraid they’ll lose. In doing so, we implicitly state that we know that good debaters win debates rather than good ideas. But through this sleight of hand, we equate being a good debater with having good ideas.
Do we forget so easily that when people practise their debating skills through debate clubs and the like, these people are randomly assigned different points of view to argue for? In this, we see a complete disconnection between the ideas one is debating and one’s skill as a debater. This should seem very obvious, but the champions of debate as a vehicle of positive social change are very quick to forget that debate is a form of battle that tests one’s skills as a rhetorician, not one’s capacity as an ethical thinker.
I’m not suggesting that we get rid of debate altogether. But what we must do is shed this dangerous belief that debate is somehow inherently good and that closing off debate is inherently bad. Ultimately, debate is a contest, plain and simple. It tests a person's rhetorical skills, but tells us nothing about which ideas are better than others.