In Defense of Debates

In Defense of Debates March 8, 2017

Last week I debated god. Not as in “I had a debate with the Creator of the Universe,” although that would have been cool. Rather as in “I had a debate about the existence of god with a Christian apologist.” This was new to me. While I enjoy debates immensely, and while I’ve been a Humanist activist for some time, I’ve never before been asked to debate the existence of god directly. Usually I’m asked to debate some topic from a Humanist view – reproductive rights, say, or LGBTQ rights. But this time, god was in the crosshairs, and in a future post I’m going to give a rundown of how the debate went.

First, though, I want to address some common concerns I hear about debates themselves. Whenever I say I am doing a debate, I get some pushback from people who either dislike debates, or even feel like we shouldn’t have debates – that they are fundamentally problematic in some way. People often say that they are too confrontational, that they don’t change people’s minds, and that other formats (like moderated panels with multiple perspectives) would be preferable for the exploration of fraught or complex topics. So I want to say a bit about why I like debates, what I get out of them, and what I think other people get out of them. (Note that here I’m talking about formal debates with a motion and two sides, not about other “debate like” formats like the Presidential Debates, which are a monstrosity.)

Debates Are Fun

I enjoy debates. The process of investigating your opponent’s arguments, and examining how best to present your own, is a fascinating intellectual and rhetorical challenge. It is, at least for me, enormously satisfying to attempt to identify problems with an opponent’s case, ferreting out logical fallacies and factual errors. Like circling a boss in a video game, looking for a chink in the armor, or seeking a well-hidden clue at a crime scene, there’s something inherently enjoyable about analyzing an argument and constructing an effective counter.

Debates are also clearly fun for a lot of the spectators. The god debate I just did was attended by a whole lot of people, and I’m assuming they would not have chosen to attend were they uninterested in the experience. Feedback afterwards was overwhelmingly positive, with people feeling that they both had a good time and learnt something in the process. Student groups often tell me that debates are some of their best-attended events, so clearly something about the format draws people in. This is nothing to sniff at: if people like attending debates, and debates are enjoyable to the debaters, then that seems to me a perfectly good reason to have them, absent any compelling evidence that they cause a problem.

Debates Are Good for the Debaters

Beyond fun, debates are useful to the debaters. The intellectual process of examining the strengths and weaknesses of a case improves one’s understanding of that case. When engaged in honestly, very few activities I know of better encourage people to think through an issue from multiple angles. To debate well you have to know your argument inside out, and be prepared for the rebuttals your opponents are likely to make. You must think about how to express yourself clearly and concisely to a diverse audience with widely differing life experiences. You have to anticipate what your opponent might say – and therefore are encouraged to think from their perspective. This is all very good intellectual training.

The competitive nature of debates – often cited as a negative – is very valuable here. Because of the relatively high stakes – the chance that I might lose a competition in public – I feel highly motivated, when I participate in a debate, to prepare extremely carefully. For this recent god debate, I spent a good part of three weeks watching videos of my opponent, taking extensive notes, reading academic articles, watching other debaters address the same topic, and trying out various argumentative strategies. This preparation goes way beyond what I would typically do for a panel discussion – and it has been my observation that this is true for others also. Panel discussions typically have no stakes, and therefore busy people often turn up to them without having done any preparation at all. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve listened to long, rambling, unfocused panel discussions in which it is clear few people have prepared to address the topic. A debate, because it is competitive and because it has strict rules, often encourages better preparation and more focused engagement with a topic than does a simple discussion. This is good for the debaters and for the audience.

Debates place the focus on the quality of arguments

Debates are argumentative: they are focused (ideally) on a crisp, clear statement and invite arguments in support of and against that statement. This is a good thing for anyone interested in learning about the process of argumentation per se. There are objectively bad arguments for true and good positions, and relatively better and worse arguments for false and bad positions. It is perfectly reasonable to say things like “I think she takes the wrong position on this issue, but in this case she presented a better argument.” Understanding this is essential to becoming a sophisticated thinker, and debates help us learn this lesson because they explicitly focus the audiences attention on the question of who makes the better argument, not on who you think has the correct position. Traditionally, in debates with a vote, audience members will be directed to vote for the side which presented the better case, not the side which they agree with, and this helps form a useful habit of mind: the ability to separate one’s own position from one’s appraisal of the arguments offered for that position at a given time.

I would go further than this to say that this skill is fundamental for all intelligent thinking. The ability to evaluate the quality of arguments is, ultimately, how we come to defensible, reasonable positions on topics. At some point, in order to be good thinkers, we have to separate our commitment to a particular idea from the quality of the reasoned support we are able to give it – and debates are a perfect format in which to hone that skill. Panel discussions are, generally, not. They lack the focus of a debate on a single question. They lack the explicit attention on the quality of arguments offered. They lack the sense of competitive importance which leads people to carefully prepare and think through their case. And they’re nowhere near as fun.

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