nuallan (nuallan) wrote,

What debate is supposed to be

In highschool I loved debate. The only reason that I wasn't on the debate team was that my school didn't have one; but trust me, I was a varsity level amateur. I was well served in being the token theologically-non-reformed kid who was willing to debate and be outspoken about it. This got me into all sorts of disputes all the time; and for one who enjoys debate as much as I did I think that it might have been tempting to adopt this position just to generate these disputes.
The problem is, this seems to generally be the view which our society has of "debate." In highschool we have football teams, tennis teams, chess teams and debate teams.
Debate is thought of as a sport. This is a disastrously wrong idea to have about what debate is. In football, fencing, tennis, chess, basketball, etc. either side may legitimately win. For debate this is not true. At least one of the two sides is wrong (of course unless the two sides are negations of each other there is no guarantee that one of the sides is actually right, they may both be wrong). But it is critical to realize that only one side can possibly be true. Therefore if debate is seeking to establish which side is correct then only one correct outcome to the debate is possible and it has nothing to do with who is debating the matter on each side.

Therefore we see that if it is rightly carried out debate should be like a game of War (the card game) rather than like a fencing match. Now of course everyone stops playing War when they realize that they are not playing a game. They are merely turning over cards to reveal a predetermined outcome. This is what debate should be. The proper conduct of a debate would merely reveal what was already true, rather than providing a field for two sides to match their skills against each other.

Now of course debate is not quite so simple as the game War. Debate might more accurately be likened to a card game like War where the cards are scattered and hidden and must be found. Even so there is a legitimate skill in debate but it is the skill of finding and dusting off the cards so that the outcome of the encounter is clear. In the modern arena we hone the skills of laying down the cards with flourish and obscuring quite what sort of card it was so that we dupe everyone into believing that we have "won." But to what avail is this? Even if we are the victor of the contest we have suceeded only in lying.

And if all of these criterion are well met, if a debate is rightly run so that the truth is simply explored andthen there is meritorious skill of presentation possible but it is the clearly worded rhetorical skill of the pedagoge rather than in the murky but dazzling words of the sophist. Of course these rhetorical skills are important for they make the found truth stick in the mind and to facilitate our understanding of the matter. This is especially important as we encounter differences of opinion because these are always conveyed (naturally enough) through language. And within language there are always the possibility of equivocations (one word can have several meanings) or other artefacts of the language which do not simply communicate possible truths.

But after all these caveats are enumerated (with, I hope, enough rhetorical skill to be clear to the reader) what I hope will stick with the reader is that debate is not rightly a competition but an exploration. Remember this and act accordingly.
Tags: in pursuit of truth, in which i moonlight as a metaphysician

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