Relearning how to have a Debate

Paxton Scott, Head editor

In 1906 at the West of England Stock Fair, the philosopher and mathematician Francis Galton observed a competition to guess the weight of an ox. Nearly 800 people each paid a sixpence to enter the competition. Although no single person guessed the exact weight, the average or mean guess was surprisingly close—the ox’s weight was 1,198 pounds while the competitor’s average was 1,197 pounds.

Galton concluded the result was “more credible to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment that might have been expected”. The experiments supports the democratic idea that the best way to arrive at the truth is through reasoned debate of opposing perspectives.

In my experience, well-intentioned, productive debate is not very common. For instance, at a dinner party last summer, a family friend began talking about President Trump’s recent ban on immigration. The organizer of the dinner party quickly intervened. There would be no political conversation happening tonight; he wanted everybody to leave on friendly terms.

Even around Durango High School, I have found that people are hesitant to enter any type of political conversation. When such conversations do occur, anger—not reflection—is usually the result.

The inability to have productive debates is nationwide phenomenon. Students on college campuses, which have the potential to be a hotbed of productive debate, often receive press surrounding intolerance to alternative perspectives.

For instance, at Middlebury College last year, Sociologist Charles Murray was confronted with hundreds of student protesters who, according to the Huffington Post, “shouted down Murray, and pushed and shoved him in the hallway as he was leaving.” Murray received such ire in large part because of his book The Bell Curve, which links lower socioeconomic status with race and intelligence.

A study by Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 73 percent of students agreed that Universities should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus. Students often argue for censoring extreme speakers because they spout rhetoric that is offensive to student groups on campus.

While perhaps well intentioned, I worry that stopping discourse in the name of protecting people’s feelings is a dangerous path to follow. If both debaters are authentic in their beliefs—truly attempting to find the best solution—then being offended is a small price to pay for the possibility of coming closer to the truth.

In an effort to foster more reasonable and civilized debate, I came up with three general guidelines that I plan to adhere to when I speak with others of different viewpoints.

First, assume that the person you are talking to is authentic in trying to find the truth and the best possible solution. Often, both political parties demonize the opposition, painting them as evil, which limits any logical discussion. In my—albeit limited—experience, most people are basically well intentioned and believe their solution is best. That’s not to say they’re right, just sincere.

Second, avoid attacking your debate opponent’s character; instead, focus on their argument. Conservatives are not necessarily “racist” or “sexist.” Labeling them as such stops any further reasoned debate because it is very difficult to rebut a character evaluation.

Instead, if you think that the argument a person is making is racist or sexist, point out their logical facility or flawed premise that they are operating off. The second approach is much more apt to change someone’s mind while the first merely puts him/her on the defensive.

Third, always assume that the person you are talking with knows something you do not. This mentality emphasizes the importance of listening to what the other person is saying. On any given two-sided issue, there is a fifty percent chance you’re wrong. A certain path towards ignorance is assuming you’re always correct.

Democracy is far from perfect. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.

However, democracies have historically proven to create society that are concretely wealthier and, although more difficult to measure, happier. If we want ours to continue to flourish, we need relearn how to have productive debates and remember the lesson of the 1906 ox weight guessing contest: diversity of opinion is important.