Phil Friedman

5 years ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Discussion Versus Debate

Discussion Versus Debate


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:

"Conversation Isn't Just Politely Waiting ... to Speak"

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

Discussion Versus Debate

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

Discussion Versus Debate

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...

Discussion Versus Debate

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"

"If I Do Say So Myself —  An Index of Blog Posts" 

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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.

The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal confidently with disagreement.

Discussion Versus Debate

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Discussion Versus Debate

Discussion Versus Debate

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Phil Friedman

4 years ago #9

David, thank you for reading ... And for the very kind words. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #8

@Dale Masters, thank you for reading, and for the kind words. Just today someone private messaged me with the following truly delightful comment: "I heard that Death had a near-Phil experience." It made me feel as though I am beginning to hit my stride. Seriously though, what I've found in more than a decade on social media is that most of the critics are actually criticizing or arguing against what we call in formal logic a "straw man". That is they either don't read carefully or don't understand what you actually are saying, and so take exception to something far removed. If you're careful to draw that to their attention, they usually stomp themselves through the floor like Rumpelstiltskin. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #7

@John Valledor - thank you for reading and commenting. However, I'd point out that often debated DO NOT use logic, but rather emotion; and they seek not so much to prove the truth of a proposition or thesis, but to persuade the audience that they are correct. And they will use all manner of devices and manipulations. One of the primary tools is an Appeal to Authority. In such appeals, someone well known or influential is quoted. Which, of course, matters not to the question of truth. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #6

Thank you, @Don Kerr, for reading and commenting so eloquently. I do believe you get the point.Just as some take even civil disagreement as a personal affront, there are others who seem to believe that they can make any sort of comment they want, and not be challenged on it. We even have people saying, "Here is what I have to say, but don't you dare to disagree, or if you do, don't you dare express that disagreement." When I was a teenager (sometime before the invention of the telephone) we used to play a game at parties. Yea, this one was pretty mild. One person would start by stating a declaratory sentence. Then in turn everyone else was required to say something that had absolutely no connection to, or bearing on the sentence stated prior. Don't scoff, it's actually harder than you think. For example, someone might start with "George Washington was the first president of the United States." If the next person said anything about, say, chopping down a cherry tree or not lying, that person was out. But if the next person said, say, "Mahummed Ali was the best heavyweight boxer of all time", that was good, and the game went to the next person. Then the third person, in order to stay in the game, would have to say something like, "The rain in Spain is mainly on the Plain." And so on and so forth. (Again, try it with your wife or kids or some friends. If you make the game move quickly, trust me, it isn't that easy, and you'll get tripped up more than you think.) And yes, I do know that sounds a lot like Donald Trumps speeches. Cont... Pt II...

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #5

@Don Kerr - Part II... But seriously, we do seem to have a lot of people doing that these days on beBee. And if one of these people makes a blatantly irrelevant remark on an author's post, and the author points out it's irrelevancy or argues for a clarification, the author is roundly accused of being contrary, aggressive, adversarial, or whatever. Just as ad hominem attack is a form of bullying, I submit that playing the poor, sensitive, aggrieved party in an intellectual exchange is also a form of bullying -- and a blatant ttempt to shut off genuine discussion and intellectual exchange. I agree with you that beBee is at a cross-road, and can either go the way of Facebook and its often mindless emotive exhibitionism and emotional voyeurism... or it can develop an ethos of genuine engagement, discussion, and exchange. Thank you for reading and commenting. And for speaking out on this critical topic. Cheers, my friend!

don kerr

5 years ago #4

Where I draw the line is here: debate has about it the requirement for winning or losing; conversation has about it the benefit of knowledge gained and perspectives broadened. I am saddened by the increasingly present notions of losing and winning in some of the beBee exchanges. Curiously (or perhaps not) they often feature the same few who appear motivated solely by some perverse need to build themselves up while disavowing any value in real conversation. beBee will unavoidably attract more of these narcissistic pests as it continues to grow but that is what they are - pests of little real substance and in most case sad, empty and impotent little people. While I haven't yet discovered a way to totally block my encounters with these pesky insects, I have been able to clear my mind of any requirement to respond to their bait. However, when someone knowingly and with premeditation publishes outright falsehoods about my brothers and sisters on this platform I will not sit idly by. It is my hope however that we can continue civil and productive exchanges here without falling prey to either vicious commentary or la-dee-dah shallow responses that avoid the key issue of showing mutual respect for the whole person who agrees to share with this audience. As my friend Jim Murray - we've got your six!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #3

Rick Delmonico - thank you for reading and commenting. I submit that while subjectivity has of needs to intrude, just as it is impossible not to have a POV in making even empirical observations, we should not conclude from that fact that all belief is equally subjective. I personally also try never to mistake inscrutability for depth when it comes to expression of thought. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #2

David Grinberg -thank you for reading and commenting, and for the kind words. You and I agree concerning the conduct of conversation on social media. I, however, believe strongly that the words we use to describe it make a lot of difference, for while the language we use models to a large extent the way we think, in the obverse, the way we speak influences the way we think. Hence, my emphasis on drawing the distinction between argument and debate. Cheers!

David B. Grinberg

5 years ago #1

Thanks for sharing more of your always astute and interesting insights, Phil Friedman. My perspective is that it's essential to have an open online dialogue on social media in which all views are expressed in a constructive and cordial manner. Call it debate, argument, or whatever, but the bottom line is keep it professional and courteous. Thoughts?

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