Why Does Debate Never Go Anywhere?

Artwork: A Theological Debate | Eduard Frankfort

The word debate is generally seen in a positive light nowadays. Especially on Facebook. People are more likely to hold it up as a shinning example of what we’re not doing than to critique it.

At the risk of asking of putting even more unrealistic pressure on our species, I’d like to suggest that even debate makes a really poor target for productive dialog.

I understand how the paradigm arose. People are trying to evaluate their opinions. So here, says the debate, are two people, with two views, making arguments to help you shape your beliefs.

But what we end up with in this model is complete insolvency. Debaters swear loyalty to a view at the outset and are penalized for accepting new evidence.

To change your mind in a debate is to lose. But why are we conflating inflexibility with victory? No one knows everything. And improving your worldview ought to be a good thing.

The tone this sets for our debaters is clear. As their opponent talks they dismiss everything said. They have already heard all the facts. This man, ladies and gentlemen, is a liar.

And why are we focused on winning anyways? Gaining knowledge doesn’t naturally include a point system. The idea of victory is something humans impose on the process.

Where Does Winning Come From?

We did not evolve to do science. At least not until just recently. When language first began it likely had more to do with competition than study.

Some paleontologists even believe that the main reason that we conquered our much larger cousins the Neanderthals is because we were capable of fighting in much larger groups.

We did this with some predecessor to modern language. And our focus was to get people to back us up and listen to us instead of other would be leaders.

Occasionally cave people may have stopped and asked for directions. But directions don’t work so well without street signs or maps.

So the very first complex languages were probably used for politics. Groups were getting bigger and loyalties were stretching thinner

Whoever could ‘win’ in the public forum was king.

Like, literally.

And that model of inflexible, team based argument is still with us today. Our genetics push us towards it at every turn.

Everyone wants to know what team or political party or frame of mind their opponents are at the outset.

Not because that information will help us learn but precisely because it will not.

If they are on the wrong team we’ll barely be able to hear their words over the counterarguments we’re forming in our own minds.

New evidence need not apply.

What Real Dialogue Looks Like

If we are to step into the future with more than 1% of our population making any real intellectual progress we need a better way to share and test ideas.

This new type of exchange would be almost the exact opposite of what we now think of as debate.

People should instead swear loyalty to the truth.

Success should be seen as having the capacity to hold all of our views far enough away so that we can really see them clearly.

And what any one person concludes at the end of it all hardly matters.

We should almost forget ourselves.

Over the course of an argument we should assume things for the sake of argument, play devil’s advocate and try and try to take on someone else’s beliefs in order to gain more perspective.

At the end of the day it is the audience that must adopt these norms. Even though we care more about knowledge today, people still want to rally the troops and propose themselves as the leader.

Individuals will always fall into a ‘winning’ mindset. We have to learn to spot this though and see it as unfair.

This will require less reinvention than reframing. We all know how to think openly and from multiple angles. We do it whenever we look for the remote or try to remember our password or set up a budget.

We just need to stop ourselves from competing whenever we talk about abstract ideas with other people. Even though our DNA will constantly try and remind us.

What really goes on in the brain when we’re trying to win is a sort of blindness. It refrains from using some of its many resources.

The way possums and certain goats play dead. If we are going to win our opponent must be absolutely wrong and any listening on our part jeopardizes that.

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