The Lost Art of Debate

Stop yelling so loudly.

Perhaps some of the most important events to take place in this election season are the candidate debates. These forums shine as a golden opportunity for the two (or more) candidates to discuss the issues in full and use thoughtful back-and-forth and sound logic to make their positions clear.

Or maybe it doesn’t happen like that.

The candidate “debates,” as they are called, are really no such thing. Debate, in the classic sense of the word, is meant to be a discussion between two sides, each working to make a third party come around to their point of view. It is supposed to be a give-and-take, a battle of wits and words. This concept of debate seems to have been lost by America.

The art of the argument seems to have overtaken the art of debate in modern American politics, and, by extension, in modern American life. We appear to have lost the capacity to discuss an issue, and have instead opted to shout at each other about it. The presidential debates are an excellent microcosm for demonstrating this point.

To begin, consider that before the debate itself even starts, there are a massive number of rules put in place. Most of these, of course, are pure politics. “Other than a handshake at the start of the debates, the candidates are not to approach each other.” You wouldn’t want either one of them trying to physically intimidating the other now, would you?

Actually, this rule is in effect because the shorter candidate does not want it shown that they are the shorter candidate. Taller candidates have a long history of victory. If you want proof of that supposition, just check out this later rule: “No candidate is allowed to use risers or any other device to make them look taller.”

Now, beyond the throwaway rules, the one that most critically demonstrates the problem we are facing in America is this: “The candidates cannot ask each other direct questions, but can ask rhetorical questions.” Answer me this, then: how do you have a debate if you aren’t allowed to question the other person’s position? It is impossible. This simple-sounding little rule guarantees that what the American people will be listening to is not so much a debate, but more in the realm of having two people speak at each other, avec moderator.

As I said, the presidential debate is the microcosm. The larger problem is evinced every day on the halls of the [Capitol][capitol], or on any _[Crossfire][crossfire]_ clone on any network. It is a problem of listening. The key to good debate is being able to listen to what the other sides have to say, incorporating their thoughts with your own, and adjusting your argument accordingly. What we have in America, quite simply, is a failure to communicate. No one wants to listen to anyone anymore. People hurl rhetoric at each other, sound bites are fashioned into weapons of war, and ultimately, no one is really accomplishing anything.

This has been a trend that has been insinuating itself into the mainstream for some time now, but it has, in recent years, been magnified significantly by the pure vitriol that is dominating American politics. When Bush stood up and said ["You're either with us or against us,"][withus] he was talking about more than just the war on terror. He was telling Americans, telling the world, that if you disagree with him, you are shit out of luck. You are henceforth the enemy.

And this is not just the idle interpretation of some liberal young writer; those very sentiments have reared their ugly head many a time this century. This concept of ‘with or against’ has become the basis for all so-called debate since, on both sides of the issues. No one is working to convince the other side that they are right; they are merely trying to convince people that the other side are a bunch of moronic assholes. This is a critical distinction.

And it is working. There are very few people left in America who appreciate true debate of the issues. Too many people have shut off their hearts and minds from the possibility of hearing something that might actually change their mind.

It’s a terrible state of affairs.

When people are unwilling to even consider an alternative point of view, the only inevitable outcome is deadlock and stagnation. It becomes a never-ending battle of one side trying to gain the slightest of edges over the other, and then the reverse when the balance shifts once again. As long as people refuse to make even the effort to understand someone else’s thoughts and viewpoints, conflict and anger are the result.

Frankly, I’m tired of being angry. It’s time to embrace open, honest debate once again, for the sake of all of us. I certainly can’t change how the media or the politicians wish to handle their discussions, but when it comes to my own life, from now on when I encounter a different point of view, I’ll make sure I’m not arguing politics, but, instead, debating them.

It’s a small step, but often the changes in life start that way.

Seriously.

[capitol]: http://www.senate.gov/vtour/
[crossfire]: http://www.jumptheshark.com/c/crossfire.htm
[withus]: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/11/06/gen.attack.on.terror/

Article © 2004 by Joel Haddock