The Death of Debate

by Baris Kastas


Whether between presidential candidates on TV or between friends on Facebook, debating doesn’t fulfil the role we think it does.


One of the most remarkable outcomes of the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two major presidential candidates in the United States for this November’s elections, was the interpretation of its result by both sides of the debate. Almost every major channel, news programme or article about the debate, whether they support Trump or Clinton, agreed on one thing: both sides were claiming that they won, and neither side has been refusing to back down on their claim. It’s slightly baffling that an agreement can’t be reached on even such a simple thing, and puts into question the utility of such a debate in the first place. What good is a debate if both sides live in completely different realities, where even who won depends on who you ask?

You don’t need to be a presidential candidate to remain unchanged at the face of a debate either. The strange state of the art of debate can be observed daily in any Facebook post with a slightly political agenda. You know; the kind of post that you share because you think it so obviously shows how right you are, and one who will easily change the opinions of those who disagree with you. Yet strangely it never does. The best you can get out of someone with opposing views with such a post is them commenting on it to defend themselves, with both side thinking they “owned” the debate based on the number of likes they got from like-minded people.

Our opinions have become unchanging and our debates have become stale. The modern human may very well be witnessing the end of debate as a useful tool for rational discourse.

From a “tool for maintaining democracy” to a shouting match

The above claim may seem like a bold one initially, and requires a discussion about the purpose of debate as it is perceived by modern societies. While Oxford dictionary defines a debate as “a formal discussion on a particular matter (…), in which opposing arguments are put forward…” this hardly tells us why we debate. We can establish that a debate relates to a matter of importance where there are at least two opposing views, and that these views then present their arguments. But it is not yet clear what the opposing sides would gain from such a confrontation.

The answer lies in the possibility of convincing others. It is hoped that one of the arguments both sides present will ring true to the ears of those who watch the debate, that one side will turn out to be more logical, more correct, and closer to the truth.

The debate’s ability to reveal to the spectators the truth of what they want to choose (thus giving them the opportunity to make the right choice) is what associates debates with a good democracy. A vote with no debate is often seen as a vote where citizens can’t be informed about the truth in their choices, thus can’t make the choices they actually want. A law that isn’t allowed to be debated in a parliament is often seen as an undemocratic law, made in an undemocratic manner (the recent debates around the current French government using the Article 49-3 of their Constitution to bypass Assembly debates was the cause of massive uproar in the country, for example). So it can even be said that modern democracy is based on debate, and relies on debate’s ability to reveal the truth.

However, today it becomes apparent that debates can’t reveal truths and never have. Furthermore, continuing to believe that they do is the reason why modern politics have taken a turn for the worst.

As previously stated, debates often cause people to become convinced of one side of the argument. For centuries we have been thinking that this was due to the rationality in the arguments of one side being superior to other one, thus ringing truer for the convinced spectators. However, the way debates convince people has nothing to do with rationality. What decades of sociological and psychological studies have taught us (if anything) is that we are swayed by non-rational factors in debates. These factors are numerous: the social background of one of the debaters, the way they present their argument (not the rational content within, mind you), our own social and psychological history, the political alignment of our parents, our current social status… Basically, anything but rationality.

Suddenly, the whole idea of having a debate becomes shaky. If my vote to Clinton or Trump is determined less by rationality and more by me falling into a group whose preconceptions align with the candidate, by me being irrationally convinced by a rhetorical device Trump uses, or by the voting history of my parents as Republicans or Democrats, can we really call a debate a tool for revealing the truth? Even worse, can we call the democracy we have a democracy with rational, informed voters? Can there even be such a rational democracy?

What I’m saying is probably nothing new to anyone who sat for a moment and thought about the results of the Brexit referendum in June. The fact that there were blatant lies on how much money would go to the NHS after leaving the EU or the number of EU legislation on pillows there was, or that a country that is as far from becoming a member of the EU as it gets like Turkey was used as a boogieman shows that the referendum had nothing to do with rationality and everything to do with manipulation and rhetoric. And yet the UK held debates about the referendum from as early as 11 January 2016. So not only did debates not help rationality in the matter, they actually made things worse by giving the podium to irrationality and spreading it.

While what I have described so far concerns the spectators of a debate, the speakers aren’t any more rational. To return to the Facebook example I gave in the beginning, there’s a biological reason almost no Facebook argument ever ends with one side changing their opinion. Researcher Dan Sperber from the Jean-Nicod institute in Paris calls this “the argumentative theory of reasoning”, which puts forward the idea that debating techniques as they developed through biological evolution were not tools to discover an objective truth. They were social tools to assert dominance to other members of the society. The natural conclusion of this theory is that a person defending one side of an argument wouldn’t be using logic to defend it, but would eventually use cognitive biases to keep defending their point of view, even when rationally they should have admitted losing the debate a long time ago. So not only do the spectators of a debate not follow reason to become convinced, but the speakers themselves become more defensive and irrational the more they are cornered. In the end, not a single person achieves a rational, truthful conclusion from a debate.

Debate is dead, long live Dialogue

If debate can never fulfil the task we had entrusted it, and if it can’t change the minds of the people rationally, what can? If sharing what you think is a convincing information on a matter that’s dear to you will never let you win over those who disagree with you (at least not rationally), should we stop talking about politics and let the chips fall where they may?

While people often don’t change their minds through debating, I’d like to think that they do with dialogue. Looking back to Oxford dictionary, we see a definition for dialogue that focuses on “… exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem”. The key is in exploration, instead of confrontation. While a debate is done for an audience with the hopes of attracting those who are already predisposed to like your opinion, a dialogue is for two: you and the other person. You don’t start with two opposing points that defend their position publicly (which would get you back to an argumentative reasoning and try to assert dominance), instead you try to find the points you agree on with a friend, and build a common opinion from what you find. Today, I firmly believe that the only meaningful debate is the one between two friends, who recognise themselves as such, and are not afraid to reach an unexpected, but rational conclusion together. Who knows, maybe the continuous failings of debates in democracy may lead more people to get the same idea.

As a final point I’d like to ask you, the reader, one thing: whether you disagree with my idea or not, don’t start a debate over it. Don’t start commenting on Facebook to explain why I’m wrong or right, we both know it will change nobody’s opinion. However, if you are a friend, I’d love to have a dialogue over it.

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