Wednesday 22 November 2017

Why Debate Will Not Save Us

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. 


  1. It is true that rhetoric is a dark art and we should spend more time studying logic, cognitive bias, probability theory and learning how to change our minds (rather than how to change those of others). It is certainly true that debate isn't perfect, but if you want to avoid it you need to provide a superior mechanism for distinguishing good ideas from bad ones. You haven't, and I think avoiding debate in the mean time is a terrible idea.

    1. But the problem the author identifies is that there is no connection between having good ideas and winning a debate. Your argument is like saying "I know that holding a horse race to see which of us is a better person might not be perfect, but until you find a better way, we're sticking with the horse race."

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    3. No, he hasn't demonstrated that there is no connection between having good ideas and winning debates. That's an absurd position to take, one that would require extraordinary evidence to even consider. What he has shown is that debate is imperfect. This is true, but consider the difference between saying that there is no connection between chess ability and IQ and saying that your competitive chess rank is no substitute for an IQ test. The former is plainly false, the latter true. The problem is, we have no IQ test for ideas. We are condemned to debate. However, debate itself is not the problem. We are. The solution is, as I said, to spend more time studying and learning how to change our minds.

    4. Yeah that chess/IQ analogy sux.

      The winner of a chess game is objectively verifiable; the winner of a debate isn't. The winner of a debate, at least in a democratic context, is a collective judgement that is refracted through all of the cognitive biases (there are more than 120 that I know of), emotions, and whatever else makes people not-Vulcans. And not-Vulcans they shall remain. This means we end up with the "winner" of a debate being not only a person who is better at debating, but a person chosen by an audience whose collective biases are multiplied exponentially by the number of people listening. So yes, the writer has failed to show that there is a perfect non-correlation between good ideas and winning debates. But the correlation between the two is so weak that one might call it weak to a near-infinite extreme. To believe that the correlation between the two is trustworthy requires nothing less than a leap of faith. To simply use the word "imperfect" to describe this weakness of correlation is, if I may quote on of the commenters above, ahhb-suhhhd.

    5. The winner of a debate is objectively verifiable: whoever wins over the majority of the audience. Welcome to democracy. Yet, this doesn't prove which of the debaters has the better ideas or is even the better rhetorician, just like a single game of chess doesn't prove which of the players is smarter or even the better player. The analogy works just fine. Your claim otherwise amounts to nothing more than whining about the rules of the game.

      "the correlation between the two is so weak that one might call it weak to a near-infinite extreme. To believe that the correlation between the two is trustworthy requires nothing less than a leap of faith. To simply use the word "imperfect" to describe this weakness of correlation is, if I may quote on of the commenters above, ahhb-suhhhd."

      Sadly, this isn't objectively verifiable and since the correlation between convincing people of something and it being true is weak to a near infinite extreme we can never be sure that you have a point. In fact we might as well give up on this discussion and do coin toss. I call heads.

  2. I think the elephant in the room for the progressive side of things is this: what if a society with freely circulating ideas and open debate chooses an ethically catastrophic course of action, like genocide? I really think that for many people who argue the case for shutting down debate, they're operating on a serpent-in-the-egg principle, where they believe that if left alone, intolerance will gain so much power so quickly that there will be no chance of stopping it. Then the intolerant group will shut down free speech. This is probably the position of more middle-class progressives, whereas more leftist progressives are arguing that the state of affairs for marginalized groups is so horrible in the here-and-now that it would take an enormous mashing of one's thumb on the scale of justice to even come close to things evening out for them.

    It's also extremely unlikely that those who defend free speech in order to protest immigration will put themselves on the line if the free speech of a radical Marxist intellectual is threatened. There may be some true Voltaire's out there, but I think it's incredibly naive to think we'll get a social majority of them.