Debate versus Discussion:  Why Debates are a Waste of Time!

(Listen to the Debate Song, while you read my blog this week.)

berniedebateOnce upon a time, I thought debates were the answer to the question of “how do we discover the truth?”  I thought that if you put two intelligent people together and each took opposing positions on an issue, that through the interplay of ideas the truth would emerge.  If you think about this a bit, it is the basis for our judicial system in America.  One side argues for the defendant, the other side argues for the prosecution or against the defendant.   It is also the basis for an academic exercise called Dialectical Research or Dialectical Inquiry.

dialectical inquiryA dialectical investigation is a form of qualitative research which utilizes the method of dialectic, aiming to discover truth through examining and interrogating competing ideas, perspectives or arguments.  This latter method is often applied through the use of case studies in which students or investigators discuss real world examples of complex situations.  The purpose of a case study is to provide a more thorough analysis of a situation or “case” which will reveal interesting information to the reader.  As I use them in my classrooms, my goal for my students is to help them understand how to better form strategies for success in business.

159_TJ_Dillashaw_vs_Dominick_Cruz.0.0Unfortunately, in the real world the strategy of debate does not work.  Debates are a waste of time when honest discussion takes second place to winning or looking good.  Dialectical Inquiry is also often useless since the complexity of the subject can be beyond the ability of many students to grasp.  Real world situations are froth with uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity or as some have called it VUCA.  VUCA is an acronym used by the military to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.  Many complex situations are seldom able to be accurately modeled leading in most instances to weak images or portrayals of the actual situation.  This is why debaters opt for simple explanations rather than complex explanations.  Another example of this watering down of reality is a Hollywood movie depiction of a supposed “true” story.  Recent movies that come to mind include the following:

  • The Revenant – Story of legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass.
  • American Sniper – Story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle
  • Steven Jobs – Story of the founder of Apple Corporation
  • The Theory of Everything – Story of physicist genius Steven Hawking

Hollywood loves to take stories of great enterprise and or daring do and change them into a 1. 5 hour dramatic show full of love, heroism and imaginary situations that often did not exist.  Did I say lies?  Perhaps that would be more accurate.  For often, these Hollywood epics are no more than half true.  The other half are stories added for dramatic impact.  Even worse perhaps are the often skewed biases that intrude into the movie which distort the reality of the character or situation.   For instance, here is what one critic had to say about the Steve Jobs movie:

“With all this in mind, I was disappointed in the Steve Jobs movie.  Partly because as an Apple expert I watched the film in dismay as events were pulled out of context and people appeared in locations and at times where they simply wouldn’t have been around.  I can’t help but think that in his desire to avoid the chronological retelling or Steve Jobs story, a traditional childhood to death epic, in favor of three acts (which would be better suited to a theatrical production) Aaron Sorkin constrained himself too much.  The only way he could tell the story was to pull events from all corners of Jobs’ life and present them as if they had happened in the 30 minutes before a keynote presentation.”  — Karen Haslam, 10 Nov 15

I mentioned earlier that debates cannot work when winning is the primary objective.  Hollywood’s version of winning is making money.  Making money becomes a more important objective than telling the truth.  Similarly, the truth takes second place to winning in political debates.  Winning for the networks means providing entertainment to sell ads, not necessarily a stage full of erudite rationale individuals trying to discover the truth.

The 2016 debates for both the Republican and Democratic candidates have not only been a farce but they have been an insult to the American People.  Here is one comment regarding the Republican debate on TV a few nights ago:

“The GOP debate on FOX last night was an embarrassment.  The talk show hosts said it best.  This debacle stooped to a new low. Penis size?? C’mon people.  Seriously. We need to respect our President.  It is beyond my comprehension how anybody could respect this pathetic excuse for a candidate.”

politifact-photos-Trump_gesturesI have watched several of the debates now and I see no evidence that truth is being discovered.  The debates have become hyperbolic spectacles of insults, half-truths, reality distortions, innuendos and petty personal attacks.  I doubt if anyone has found much truth in these debates never mind elucidations of complex policy positions for any of the candidates.  Trump 2495-so-funny-and-true-rhetoric-wallpaper-427x454will build a giant wall.  Cruz will fix Syria.  Rubio will fix health care.  Sanders will fix inequality in America.  Hillary will fix Obamacare.  Do you know how any of the candidates will accomplish these lofty goals?  Of course not, since they know that the “debates” are no place for such a complex discussion.  Trump perhaps realizes this fact better than anyone and has kept his discussion and clarification of his policy positions to less than fifteen second descriptions.  The general consensus seems to be that if a candidate cannot explain their position on any subject in less than fifteen seconds, they are doomed, i.e., they lose.

In their book, Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate, (1988) Jamieson and Birdsell make a case for the importance of Presidential debates but only if certain changes are made to the usual format.  Their book was written over twenty five years ago and if you have watched the recent debates, you will note that their recommendations were not heeded.  Furthermore, the present debate formats have probably encouraged worse excesses in rhetoric and sophistry than either Jamieson or Birdsell could have imagined in 1988.  Looking historically at debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were the epitome of rationality and decorum.  Today, the networks want drama and entertainment.  Debates such as took place between Lincoln and Douglas would never qualify as either drama or entertainment.

debate parrotsOn a more personal level, I have a problem with debates.  I have a few friends who love to debate.  I have noted as a result of recent discussions with them concerning the Presidential elections that do not want to understand or clarify any issues, they just want to argue or perhaps debate.  I say that they want to argue, because their main agenda seems to be looking good or advancing their points and not understanding my points.  They often enter into these contests (Since that is what a debate means to them.  It seems to be a contest between winning their points and looking good or losing their points and looking bad.) with a pretense of trying to understand why I think or feel a certain way.  Sometimes, they start the “debate” with a flat out rejection of my position or with a declaration such as “you are dead wrong” or “you don’t know what you are talking about.”  I confess that such latter utterances often preclude my disposition to have a rational discussion with them.   I see no point in it.

Have you ever changed anyone’s mind which was made up?  Have you ever tried to have a rational discussion with someone who was being emotional?  Have you ever tried to explain something to someone whose main objective in talking with you was to score points or make you look stupid?  Under the rubric of “debate,” are we to think that our antagonists give one farthing for the truth or where we stand on an issue?  There is a big difference between debating me on an issue and discussing an issue with me.

The result of these “debates” with erstwhile friends have led me to two inescapable conclusions.  First, I don’t need or even want debaters in my life.  I have little time left for scoring points or winning games by making someone else look bad or proving that they are wrong and I am right.  Second, debates do not start from an honest position of fruitful and objective inquiry and thus cannot lead to truth or relevant knowledge.  Rather, most debates start from a position of “I am right and you are wrong.”  The antagonists goal being to show you or the audience how right and smart they are and how wrong and stupid you are.  Is there a point to such an exhibition?  I presume winning is the payoff and reward.  As Vince Lombardy once said:  “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

If your objective is to understand something or if you want to find the truth, I suggest that you think more of discussing and less of debating with others.  A good discussion aims to find an understanding and comprehension of complexities that is often beyond our singular abilities to understand.  The truth can usually (but not always) be found between two extremes.  However, the process of truth seeking is more important than the process of truth finding.  The truth will inevitably change over time.  You will never have found a truth that will be good for all eternity.  There will always be a new truth to be found somewhere.  Thus, the process of truth seeking becomes a way of life that outfits the seeker for a journey through the cosmos that may take the seeker to the end of the universe and back to the beginning.

Well, if you finished my blog and you think I did not give a fair presentation on the evils of debate, then please listen to the song I noted above.  This song makes a case for the value of debate.  It does it in an Indian Rap song with great visual effects, music and choreography.  I am probably undoing my entire argument by including this song but Amen or so be it. 

(Listen to the Debate Song, it makes a great case for the value of debate)

Time for Questions:

Do you seek first to understand or first to be understood?  Do you debate others or discuss with others?  Are you more concerned with understanding or looking right?  How do you grasp complex issues?  How do you insure that you truly understand and are not being duped by charlatans trying to sell you simple answers to complex issues?

Life is just beginning.

“And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:”  — The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777.

 

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Karen Persico
    Mar 22, 2016 @ 19:08:15

    I certainly agree that the Republican debates were a farce–or worse than. I haven’t watched all the Democratic debates, but I thought those that I have seen were much more focused on topics rather than people and the candidates were respectful of each other. I’d like to see and end to all debates and have the candidates respond to policy questions with their plans and beliefs as we would see in the newspapers in the “old days”. That, along with spending limits, might give us information we need to choose and prevent the media spectacles that do nothing to help promote a qualified candidate.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: