Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, this is not an article about the political debate that was on tonight, but it does have implications in that sphere as well. This is about “debate” in the generic sense – a discussion when two or more entities/people/parties disagree on a certain topic and decide to talk about it.

Seems like the majority of discussions (debates, if you will) fall into one of two categories:

1. politically correct, staid, excessively “civil”, no trace of passion

2. “your mother is a $!*&# because you don’t agree with me”

Now [1] tends to a bit boring because people are afraid to articulate their true thoughts/emotions for fear of being misjudged or labeled the wrong way. The second, while it makes for interesting television, evokes the wrong set of sentiments. How often does a discussion quickly step out of bounds because one or both parties got carried away with an unnecessary comment or judgment call?

Now, neither of these two extremes achieves the true purpose of the debate – understanding the other side(s) and achieving consensus. The first, as I mentioned, is overly civil and the true reasons and thoughts of the parties involved are not known. The whole affair is put up and made for “appearing” to do the right thing. So the public face is quite different from the private one and hence it is extremely unlikely that people will put aside their prejudices and beliefs for such a farcical  process to yield results.

The problem with the second one is obvious – name-calling and personal insults do not go hand in hand with understanding, compromise or consensus. Once this route has opened up there is pretty much no going back. The statement above (about one’s mother) is akin to the corollary in Godwin’s law; once someone likens you to a Nazi/Hitler or insults your mother, then every statement that you made before, no matter how well constructed or how logically or fundamentally correct, is open to question and shaded grey. If you really believe in a cause/opinion, then the best way for someone to belittle it is to let you (yes, you, who might be the most fervent proponent of the viewpoint) hang yourself with statements such as these. Agreed that it is a logical fallacy. Just because you likened someone to Hitler doesn’t mean that the polar bears are not dying! But, unfortunately, you have handed your opponent(s) the leisure to ignore everything (yes, that’s right everything) you have ever said in that discussion. The lack of a platform to present your views or the possibility that you are not taken seriously enough is potentially more dangerous to your “cause”.

If you are thinking, “I don’t do that.” I never insult anyone that way. Let me put this across to you – even if you pass of what you think is a trivial insult (“what an idiot!”) or make a silly sarcastic comment with negative connotations (“your points of view are certainly ‘interesting’ ”), you are still guilty of taking the second path! This is because, to someone in the middle of passionately expressing their point of view or defending their faith, so as to speak, there is nothing worse than mockery, no matter how subtle. From then on, it is a free-for-all and matters can only get worse, because every exchange drags the quality of the arguments lower until [2] (or something very close) is achieved.

Is there no middle ground? Can we not have a passionate debate without falling into the gutter? How’s this as a third option:

3. each party will passionately vocalize their point(s) of view, listen to the others, bring up facts, arguments and opinions that counter the expressed views and then allow the other side to do the same. A bit like a sparring match.

Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not talking about a “clinical” approach where someone makes a point and then the other spends 5 minutes thinking about it and then responding with “logical fallacy” arguments and what not. That would approach method [1] from above and would end up becoming boring, both, to the participants and to the viewers, if any. Be passionate, go on record with those contentious thoughts and opinions, fervently argue against the points made by the opposition, all without resorting to calling into question the judgment of the other side. They have their reasons for picking a particular side (or staying impartial which is actually harder that you can imagine) and there is no reason to question their motives for picking that side or insulting them for doing so. The question I have is – so what if they don’t agree with you? Consider it time well spent, shake on it and walk off. No harm done. You don’t ever have to have a discussion with them ever again on that or any other topic if you think that you will never agree with them. Perhaps in time, they will come to realize that your point of view is correct and may start to agree with you. If you had chosen method [2] then there is very little scope that this could happen. All it takes someone who is a partial or even true believer to harden his stance, is to be belittled or insulted for holding that opinion.

Seems like we have lost the ability to have true civilized debates (not the ones mentioned in [1]) in the modern world. Television and the large propagation of media (traditional and otherwise) might be pushing people to pick [1] or [2]. The former because anything can be taken out of context and misrepresented and the latter because it sells more newspapers and increases television ratings. What must the ordinary man on the street (“Joe Plumber”) think and learn when he sees his peers, his administrators, policy makers, celebrities, commentators and even teachers and educators around him stick to one of these two extreme techniques? Where are the people who could raise a crowd to its feet with passionate speeches and counter-arguments without ever insulting the other party? Are they a dying, nay dead, breed?

Here is an interesting note to end on: how often does one see a debate/discussion start with method [1] (or a brief attempt at [3]) and then invariably end up at [2]?


1 comment:

Radha said...

Welcome back!
Good post. I agree with everything you said.( Although I reserve the right to call you an Idiot and still win the argument :) )
The hardest thing to do though is to walk away from a discussion that has turned sour.
Even though you may not have been the one to have fired the first shot, if you hang around to dodge the bullet or maybe fire one of your own in defense, you are painted with the same bloody brush. Most arguments become free for alls because people don't know how to stop and walk away. If you think about it, that's the magic mantra for a healthy debate. If you think the opposing party is an idiot or ignorant, Walk away. If they are abusive, Walk away. If you are frustrated because you are not getting your point across, walk away. It is so much easier said than done though. Sigh!