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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Why debate #3 - because debating can make the world a better place

Imagine two friends, Alex and Anoushka. 

They really like each other. They enjoy each other’s company. They do lots of stuff together. Then, one day, Alex says or does something that Anoushka doesn’t like. Anoushka feels hurt and let down by Alex. She feels angry about what has happened. So angry, that when she tells Alex about it, she finds herself raising her voice. But Alex doesn’t seem to be listening. So she raises her voice some more. After a while she is shouting at Alex, and he feels threatened, even a little scared. So scared that he can’t listen to what Anoushka is really saying. Instead of listening to what she’s saying, he starts shouting back. Now Anoushka gets even more upset. She shouts even louder. She brings in stuff that has nothing to do with whatever originally upset her (why, exactly, did you tell Rebecca what my sister told me about her boyfriend? I told you not to tell anyone). So Alex retaliates, with more stuff that has nothing to do with whatever they were arguing about in the first place (it was because of you that I got into trouble in Maths. I covered for you that day, and you never even said thank you). And so it goes on. Before long, they’re each convinced that the other is a seriously bad person, and they’re using words about each other which I can’t print here. After half an hour of this, Anoushka storms off, and she and Alex are no longer talking to each other. They spend that evening on their phones each instructing their group of friends not to talk to their ex-friend who is now their enemy. What a shame. They really liked each other.

Have you ever had an argument like that? 

Does it remind you of anything?

It reminds me of a lot of politics today. Someone says (or tweets) something that another group of people doesn’t approve of. Instead of trying to understand why they said (or tweeted) it, and explaining why they disagree, they attack the person who said (or tweeted) it, letting them (and the world) know what an awful person they must be. If they can, they get them banned, or fired, or excluded in some way. Of course, this doesn’t change the mind of the first person. It just makes her or him (and all the people who agree with what she or he said or tweeted) even more angry about whatever it was they said (or tweeted) in the first place, even more certain that they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong but a bad person. At the end of it, everyone is more intolerant, more angry, more certain of their own superiority over anyone who disagrees with them, and knows and understands less about whatever it was they disagreed on in the first place. Rather like Alex and Anoushka.

Let’s rewind.

Imagine if, instead of shouting at Alex, Anoushka just tells him what she didn’t like about what he said or did, and why. Imagine Alex listens to what Anoushka says, carefully. Imagine he then explains why he said or did what she didn’t like, and why he thought it was the right thing to say or do. Imagine Anoushka listens to him, carefully, before explaining why she disagrees with him. Imagine Alex listens to her disagreement, before responding, calmly and reasonably, with his own point of view. Maybe Anoushka persuades Alex. Maybe Alex persuades Anoushka. Or maybe they just agree to differ on this one thing, and carry on being friends, carry on liking each other, carry on enjoying each other’s company, carry on doing stuff together, carry on respecting each other. Maybe even respecting each other more.

Have you ever had an argument like that?

I hope so. Arguments like that actually bring friends closer.

Britain is engaged, at the time I’m writing, in the first kind of argument, about Brexit, an argument with many sides, all sides shouting at each other, all thinking they’re right and the other sides are stupid, or ignorant, or evil, with no side listening. The United States is doing much the same about President Trump and his policies. It doesn’t make either of those countries a nice place to live; nor does it help anyone to get anything done. It could be better than this. It should be better than this. Shouldn’t it?

What has debating got to do with this?

Actually (you won’t be surprised to hear) quite a lot.

Debating is a competitive activity - sometimes fiercely competitive - and you should always go into a debate trying to win. But it has rules.

In a debate, if you shout at the other side, you’ll lose. If you refuse to listen to them, you’ll lose. If you call them bad people for disagreeing with you, you’ll lose. If you call them names, you’ll lose. If you make no attempt to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying, you’ll lose. If your speech is the length of a social media post, you’ll lose. If your only form of argument is to keep repeating the same thing because you are absolutely certain it is true, you’ll lose. And if you are incapable of seeing the world from any point of view other than your own, you’ll lose every debate in which you have to argue a case you don’t agree with - i.e. about half of them.

On the other hand, if you keep yourself thoroughly informed about what is going in the world, making sure you get your news not only from sources you agree with, you’ll win. If you take the trouble to understand both, or all, sides of a question, you’ll win. If you listen to those who disagree with you - really listen, until you understand why they’re saying what they’re saying - you’ll win. If you construct your arguments carefully and thoroughly, brick by brick, taking nothing for granted, constantly questioning your own assumptions, you’ll win. If you focus on facts and arguments, not people, you’ll win. And if you treat the people you debate with respectfully, as opponents, not enemies, you’ll win.

What’s more, you’ll be a much nicer person to be around.

Imagine a world in which everyone - especially people in public life - behaved in the way a successful debater behaves. Wouldn’t it be a much nicer, safer, more civilised world? And (just as important) wouldn’t it be better run? Wouldn’t better decisions get made, if they were only made after the kind of careful, balanced deliberation debating makes you engage in?

One of the reasons I am so passionate about debate, and have devoted so much of my life to promoting it amongst young people, is because I sincerely believe that it can change the world for the better. It won’t be too long before you and people your age will be in charge. If, one day, you can put into practice what you learn from debating in the way you run the world, it will be a much better place.

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