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Debate has become yet another casualty of Covid-19, we must relearn the ability to argue, but then smile and shake hands

I learned my love of debate from my father. An elite champion orator, he argued his way through his Michigan high school and into Marquette University. He led the college debate team to tournament wins across the country before graduating into professorship and becoming the team’s coach. Along the way, he co-published an entirely new way to tackle academic debate with the Goal Case Affirmative Approach. 

Even though I grew up into a writer more than a speaker, his core principles on how to win a debate stay with me and transfer well to any medium – and to life in general: 

  • Think before you speak.
  • Ask your opponent questions, but never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.
  • Have your supporting evidence ready before making your point.
  • Never allow your opponent a shifting premise.
  • Don’t lose your temper because the first side that gets angry loses.

He believed – as do I – that the highest achievement of an intellect and of the mind’s greatest virtues is the ability to behold an opposing point of view objectively. That simple, yet elusive act encourages one to see a problem from a different perspective. Admittedly, it’s a debating tool used to deconstruct an opposing argument en route to disproving it, but the process shows respect to the other side of an issue. Most importantly, it has the surprising potential to challenge us into confronting weaknesses or missteps in our own understanding. 

Genuine, purposeful and structured intellectual debate is all but dead in modern society. Polarized populations now sit in their ideological camps and completely dismiss the opinions of their rivals. News media outlets, more interested in ad rates and profit margins, provide comfortable partisan echo chambers enabling viewers to hear their own preexisting opinions parroted back at them with authority. 

The dominance of social media and online communication allows anyone to hate with a poisonous mix of anonymity and tribalism. It’s too strong a temptation for most overtaxed and under-educated citizens to resist thumb-typing quick insults to anyone with an opposing opinion. 

Tossing out a glib, sarcastic epithet and waiting for the rest of their seal colony to clumsily applaud their bold truth is an opiate, several levels easier for social media addicts than engaging anyone with a question – and more numbingly comfortable than burning even a single calorie considering they might be wrong. 

To put it simply, it’s easier to insult someone – to hate – when we don’t have to look each other in the eye or face those we criticize nose to nose. Social media bubble-wraps our vitriol. 

Our ever-present Age of Narcissism does its part to extinguish productive discussion. In addition to a reasoned intellect, healthy debate requires self-confidence and strength of character. One must be comfortable with questioning of the self. Before one can rise to defend a point of view, one must first withstand criticism and dismissal. 

The modern need for immediate affirmation, acceptance, adulation and belonging at all costs, short circuits most exchanges of new ideas. It’s easier to remain ignorant, deafened and buoyed by the loud applause of other fools, than to step out on one’s own and evolve. 

This slow extinction of open debate exacts severe costs. We need only look at the coronavirus for the most relevant example. Viruses kill. Pandemics happen. While the world is slowly emerging from the shadow of this most recent illness, it’s a certainty we will face another one in the future. 

Still, while one legion denies Covid-19 was genuinely serious, the other insists the planet didn’t panic enough. The two deaf armies gather with their backs to one another, each certain there’s no reason to find any common ground with their opposite numbers. Undoubtedly, when a new bug arrives to threaten our lives and economies, we’ll be no nearer a sensible planned response. It’ll simply be an excuse for more insults and fewer answers.

One final lesson my father stressed when closing the book on my debate training applied not just to the debate lectern, but also to the football field, the boxing ring, the golf course, the pool hall, the chess board, etc. 

“If you lose, shake hands and say, ‘Well done.’”

In his 30 years of daily work at his small urban college, my father would visit the same group of peers at the same cafeteria table nearly every day. I visited on occasion, and it was a mix of men and women of different ages and races teaching a selection of subjects from the practical to the theoretical. 

A moderate conservative in his own views, my father would eat his lunch sitting with socialist union reps, loud reactionary conservatives, spirited progressive protesters and sarcastic political cynics. He had a smile for each of them, even inviting one and all to participate in his weekly NFL pool. He wanted everyone to play – whether in a debate or predicting football games. 

Amidst the endless, witless wars between today’s progressives and conservatives, there remains no shred of human decency in the smog of emotional histrionics and dismissive animosity. As though they’re not allowed to show kindness to the enemy, left and right never meet or extend any sign of friendship to each other. It seems no one can disagree on any issue today without reverting to outrage and insults, and humanity loses beauty and dignity in that collapse of standard-based behavior.

We’ve lost the ability to disagree and still break bread. We can no longer look across the conference table at each other and say, “I think you’re wrong. I don’t believe what you believe. I don’t know if we’ll ever agree on anything. But, for now, let’s get a drink and be human to each other. Let’s tell stories of experiences we shared and maybe find common ground. If not, let’s just finish our drinks, smile…and shake hands.” 

There’s nobility in that moment – a leveling effect shared between people able to admit that none of us have all the answers. If we can’t recover that shared value of respectful civility, there’s not much point left to any debate. We’re all going to lose.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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