One of my favorite Monty Python sketches was the argument clinic. A man, played by Michael Palin, on the left, walks down a hallway looking for the office of the argument clinic. He is willing to pay for an argument session, hoping to refine his debate skills. Instead, his argument counselor, played by John Cleese, simply disagrees with everything Palin says. When Palin complains that mere disagreement isn’t a worthy form of argument, Cleese says it is. The dialogue degenerates into “is, is not, is too, is not”. They then argue over whether Palin deserves a refund. The sketch is hilarious, in large part because of the comic skills of the antagonists.
But in real life, especially in politics and social issues, or anything that gets emotional, what passes for debate degenerates like the argument clinic. Why does that happen, and how do we engage in rational debate? Problem 1: Lack of shared definitions. Imagine if you encountered visitors to your city from Malta, Portugal, Finland and Italy all at once who all had a strong urge to pee, all asking for directions to the nearest twaletta, banhiero, WC and gabinetto. How long would it take to get them all sorted out? How many would have wet stains before you were able to direct them? Problem 1A: Even when we think we have defined our terms, we are unwilling or unable to question our own assumptions. I read a debate between ultra liberal Sean Illing and arch conservative Ben Shapiro. Illing disputed Shapiro’s contention that JudeoChristian values shaped our culture by pointing out that 80% of Germans were self-identifying Christians during Hitler’s reign. Neither of them defined what they meant by Christian. Real Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed Nazism in every way, because he was a Christ follower, and was imprisoned in a concentration camp and eventually executed. Like Sean Illing, many people automatically use certain terms, Christian being a frequent one, without understanding of the variations.
Problem 2: We prefer easy slogans which sound good to us but others don’t know what we mean. I saw a bumper sticker today that said, “Jesus taught love, not hate.” Well, yes, sort of. Jesus taught a lot of things, including that Pharisees were hypocrites, love was obedience to His commands, profaning the Temple was worthy of being whipped, and to bless those who hate you. What did that bumper sticker even mean? What did he think love and hate meant? Who was his target audience? Is he promoting Jesus, or trying to deliver a message to certain people? If someone used that phrase during a debate, would anyone be enlightened?
Problem 3: Not being able to know what another person is thinking or feeling, we project our own thoughts and feelings onto others. For example, if someone states that we must enforce our immigration laws, an opponent might be saying to himself, “if I said that, I would be hostile to people of color.” Who is most opposed to illegal immigration? People who emigrated here legally and have abided by our laws! Most of them are from Mexico. Problem 3A: Projection usually results in judging the motives of your opponent negatively, so instead of an intellectual disagreement you are the good person and your opponent is evil. That justifies retaliation, like doxing and assault.
Problem 4: Getting emotional is easy, it’s automatic, but thinking rationally takes training, discipline, work. Therefore, isn’t it obvious that emotion is the default method of debate, or argument. Palin thought he paid for a debate, Cleese took his money then the easy road of simply disagreeing. An argument, rather than debate. Problem 4A: Many people are pushing an agenda and have no incentive to debate, no interest in or are antagonistic towards the truth. This is the most intractable of the problems, so let’s tackle it first. Here are some of Curmudgeon’s rules for effective debate:
1. Agree on a commitment to the truth. Ask “are you sincere about getting to the truth of the issue?” There’s only yes and everything else. Without yes, don’t waste your breath. It’s like wrestling a pig in mud—-you both get filthy, but the pig likes it.
2. If you both agreed on commitment to the truth, set ground rules for the debate. Rather than “reinventing the wheel”, agree on some already established rules, like “Each person has two or three constructive speeches, and two to three rebuttal speeches. The affirmative gives the first constructive speech, and the rebuttals alternate: negative, affirmative, negative, affirmative. The affirmative has both the first and last speeches of the debate.”
3. Define your terms before getting into speeches. For example, if you were asked, “are you pro-life or pro-choice”, you might say “I don’t know if we define those slogans the same way. What do you mean by each expression?” Not to be (too) pedantic here, but definitions must be precise, painting an almost identical mental picture for each side.
4. Establish a relevancy challenge. Either side has the right to ask “how is that point relevant to the question at hand?” Inevitably, someone will get emotional and start accusing or attacking the other person; the relevancy challenge will either get them back on track or show the breakdown of goodwill.
This isn’t a complete list, but observing just these four rules will usually save you from wanting to debate anything, since few people can abide by even the first one, let alone all four. You might just as well hand your money over to John Cleese, it will be less frustrating.