Discussion Versus Debate
DEBATE IS ANYTHING BUT AUTHENTIC SEARCH FOR TRUTH...
When you use the term "argument" these days, most people think of acrimonious exchange. Especially on social media, where any form of disagreement is taken to be an egregious act of vilification. The predominating precept seems to be that everyone's personal opinion is as equally valid as anyone else's, and that, therefore, to disagree with, or question someone's expression of his or her personal opinion is a social media faux pas of the first order. And one violates this principle at the risk of being labeled a — dum da dum dum — "TROLL".
Argument: an angry disagreement...
— Merriam Webster Dictionary
I've written before about the difference between what I like to call "civil disagreement" and valueless vituperous vilification. (Yea, I know, but I just thought a wee bit of alliteration might lighten the mood.) If you are interested in reading that previous article, which is in a sense the precursor to this one, you will find it at:
I argued in that piece that disagreement, expressed in a civil manner, is the lifeblood of true intellectual engagement and growth. To which most readers responded quite positively.
However, during the exchanges over that article, a significant percentage of commenters mentioned that they, "liked a good debate" or some variant on that. And my problem is with what I see as a lack of clarity with regard not only to the term "debate", but with regard to thinking that rational argument is the same as debate. For it is not.
Argument: a discussion in which people express different opinions about something...— Merriam Webster Dictionary
Debating is a contest of persuasion, and debaters are very much like the Sophists of Socrates's and Plato's time. Indeed, the Sophists have to be the historical forerunners of Debaters.
It was held that Sophists had the ability to "make the worse case appear the better." That they had no interest in, or commitment to Truth. But only a desire to win over the hearts and minds of their audience. Sound like any person or persons whom you know today?
Certainly, politicians, almost by definition. But also lawyers by functional requirements. Marketing and advertising creatives and copy writers. And, I submit, the new breed Internet-based would-be journalists. To mention just a few, if for no other reason than because my hate mail has, of late, fallen off to a trickle.
If you doubt what I am saying, consider please the nature of formal high school and collegiate level debates. In most cases the debaters are assigned, or choose straws for which side of a topic they will speak on, pro or con. It is not supposed to matter whether one finds or even seeks the truth. The winning debater is the person who presents the most compelling, persuasive argument(s) concerning whatever topic is at hand.
Debating is widely lauded as a skill in college, high school, and even in some primary school educational circles. I am personally not a fan, and actually believe it should neither be taught, nor encouraged among the developing young. For it celebrates disingenuity and craftiness. However, that is different topic of argument for another time.
Argument: a statement or series of statements for or against something...— Merriam Webster Dictionary
There are many different forms of reasoning, deductive, inductive, abductive, conditional, modal, and so on, and so forth. But they all share a common underpinning, which is the search for truth.
The different forms of reasoning a different approaches to connecting assumptions or empirical data to a conclusion or conclusions that are implied or "follow" from those assumptions or data.
Reasoning, not persuasion is the keystone in civil discussion and authentic intellectual engagement.
And in its best form, "argument" is the rational presentation of not only what one believes, but why, pursued in a spirit of mutual respect and civility. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
Intellectual engagement and rational exchange seek truth... or at least, the closest approximation to it we can achieve...
I have run into many people whose guiding principle seems to be, "Don't confuse me with the facts..." Sometimes they will add, "Truth is relative, as Einstein proved with his Theory of Relativity." Echhh! Gag.
For the record, and for those who are fond of taking such a position, Einstein's Theory of Relativity didn't "prove" anything. That is why it is referred to as a "theory". And what it did say was that our picture of the universe is relative to our position in the space/time continuum. For example, when you look up at the stars you are "seeing" what was there eons ago, not necessarily what is there at this point in time. And what Einstein's Theory of Relativity sought to achieve was an objective way of seeing the world, independent of the observer's position in the space/time continuum. So, let's simply move past the piles of bull chips about everything being relative and there being no absolute truth.
Debate is not conversation, for conversation involves considering the reasoning of others, whereas debate proceeds mostly on assumptive stamina...
Debate is not authentic, in any sense of the latter term that I know of. For debaters by definition do not necessarily believe in the positions that they advance. Nor to debaters give a whit for the opinions, or views, or arguments of others. Debaters indeed are only waiting politely, and sometimes not so politely for their turn to speak.
Someone with sufficient debating skills and enough assumptive stamina, might be able to convert the weaker-minded among us to their beliefs — however much those beliefs may be cynically held.
But that debater will not, and cannot win the hearts and minds of those who understand the difference between persuasive technique and rational discourse, namely, argument in its best sense. Or of those whose instincts sniff out a lack of intellectual authenticity.
Debate, in its true sense, and conversation are polar opposites. But authenticity meets argument, in its best sense, a truly dynamic duo is formed. — Phil Friedman
Author's Notes: This post is a continuation of my "If I Say So Myself" series of philosophical musings with an edge. An index of some of my previously published philosophical reflections can be found at"
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
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