Clashing And The Art Of Debate

Those who are not trained to listen deeply and modify their responses should not debate.

The problem with getting intelligent people to debate each other is you often get shit like this:

A fantastic show, some communication of great arguments, yet a terrible, terrible debate.

It was a disaster of a debate not because of the validity of the arguments presented (for the most part), but because of the participants’ propensity of talking completely past each other.

Their goal in this debate seems to be to win, not to understand. The participants are not there to grow as intellectuals or to help the rest of us figure things out. They have not deeply studied each others work prior to the debate nor are they attempting to listen and understand each other’s arguments during the debate so as to offer meaningful responses.

At best, they aim to get their points across. And as worst, they’re there for the spectacle.

When opponents are in such a speaking and winning mode, when they are not trained to listen, to absorb, and to adjust their thoughts and responses, the format of the debate creates the illusion that what is being said by each side is mutually exclusive.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have speakers give short talks about their own ideas about the world. It’s fun to listen to different viewpoints, some ideas in agreement, some in disagreement, and others somewhat unrelated.

But when the forum is a debate, the audience assumes that the arguments presented are, for the most part, incompatible with each other. The audience is there to listen to two opposing viewpoints and to see which, if any, seem to make sense. They’re there primarily to be persuaded one way or the other.

Unfortunately, far too many debates are conducted like the one posted above. Debates with participants, often brilliant participants, completely talking past each other, not truly addressing each others’ arguments, only briefly addressing each other’s points, and usually in straw man fashion: quickly restating their opponents arguments in a few short phrases and then attacking that simplified version of the argument.

In college debate circles, this concept of directly addressing your opponents assertions is known as “clashing.” There are judges in college debate competitions trained to listen if each side is directly addressing their opponents arguments, as are the debaters themselves trained and are free to call out their opponents for not clashing directly.

But such a skill takes time to develop and hone. It requires debaters to listen very carefully to their opponents and modify their responses accordingly. This allows the debate to move forward. It allows weak arguments to be dropped and for others to grow stronger and develop. Unfortunately, even the wisest intellectuals (some of whom can be seen talking past each other above) are not trained in the art of debate and thus clash very infrequently.

Yes debates are exciting. They feel like modern day intellectual jousts.

But that’s the problem.

For intellectuals untrained in debate (almost all of them), the format all too often contains very little meaningful clash, even in the seemingly most exciting of debates.

It’s like watching highly skilled blacksmiths suddenly thrown into battle against each other and expecting them to use the swords and shields they themselves forged to fight each other. They might hurt their opponents (or themselves) and it might be an entertaining show, but it will almost always be a piss-poor duel, one without any show of swordsmanship.

The skill specificity of creating weapons just doesn’t transfer over very well to using weapons. Likewise, the skill specificity of truth seeking through argument construction and experiment design does not transfer over terribly well to debating: absorbing conflicting pieces of information and presenting a thoughtful and coherent response in real time with the aim of discovering, clarifying, and illuminating.

A much better format for exploring ideas between intellectuals, while less entertaining and less gladiatorial is the “shoot the shit” style conversation. Here, participants speak their minds much more calmly, with much less bravado and ego, ask each other questions, and try to advance their own understanding of their fellow intellectuals’ worldview as well as that of the audience.

This is a format much better suited for the craftsman, not the warrior.

Until the day great authors, philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals learn to clash well, they should put down their verbal swords lest they risk looking foolish, creating the the illusion of intellectual jousts while merely producing a lot of noise.