Maybe We Don’t Have to Debate Against Each Other

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow


An argument against sides in an argument


If there’s one thing that most people agree is bad about today’s political discourse, it’s that it is too polarized. Everybody seems to be talking like their team is perfect and always right, and the other team is always wrong, dumb, and evil. Admitting error is seen as showing weakness, and lying for the cause is seen as doing what’s necessary to achieve the greater good.

We’re not liking this, right? Any of this? Or am I misreading the planet? In case I happen to be correct and you are one of the most people who would prefer a saner version of the world, I believe what’s necessary to do first is to establish a clear alternative. What does a much less polarized political discourse look like? What is a better way of debating issues? Let’s explore.

I started thinking about this in much more practical terms after our last ProCon meeting, since what we’re building there is a platform for more constructive conversations. Our primary source of inspiration, or more precisely methodology, is the theory behind debating, as in debating competitions. As it turns out, debating competitions are very polarized.

By design, every debate has two sides, proposition and opposition. Put simply, prop is for the motion, and opp is against the motion. The motion could be any controversial declarative statement, any opinion. You can have more teams on each side of the debate, or you can have any number of individual speakers (including an odd number) who each choose a side.

One way or the other, you still have those sides, though. According to the very worked out, but somehow not super written down theory of debating, what must happen in every debate is a clash. Clash of opposite viewpoints. It is the goal of either team to pick apart everything the other team says. Much like at court, the situation that this type of debate was based on.

But let’s stop for a second and think about this. The model situation that this type of debate emulates is one where the two sides are adversaries, where only one side, one party, can win, while the other has to lose. In this scenario, it is in the interest of neither party to admit, let alone adopt, any good ideas of their opponents, anything they got right. This is polarization.

If we baked this structure into our platform, what it would likely do is train speakers to become better at winning polarized debates. And remember, somebody winning a debate like this means that somebody else is losing. In a democracy, the losing party would literally lose an election, allowing the other side, or roughly the other half of population, to screw them over.

Since we don’t want to just make polarization more extreme, what we decided to focus on instead is what the debate judges are doing in a debate, not the debaters. The judges don’t take sides. Their function is to listen, understand what was said, and determine, as objectively as possible, which arguments were better or worse by reasonable, relevant standards.

To make the whole debate more like this, the most fair existing standard of adjudication of argumentation, we will start by presenting the contributions as a debate judge would write them down. In the debate adjudicator flow chart, all arguments presented in the same round are noted in a column from top to bottom in order in which they were uttered.

In the first round, all of the contributions will be newly presented ideas, which is one type or phase of argument in the debating theory. In the following rounds, the contributors will have to designate whether they’re presenting a new idea, or whether they’re responding to a new idea or a specific response further down the line. That’s how threads will be tracked, from left to right. Participants will also have tools to correct designations.

Beyond that, there will still be an indicator of polarity, but in a more pure, analytical sense. Each response contribution will have to indicate whether it is negative (a rebuttal), or positive (a reinforcement). The anti-polarizing trick is that the initial new idea contributions will not have an indication or requirement of polarity in relation to an overarching debated motion.

In other words, original contributions will be allowed to assume any position toward the topic of the conversation. Removing this constraint actually makes a lot of practical sense. Even in debating, what a position is can get pretty complicated, let alone in real life. There are different types of motions that can be debated, resulting in different types of debates.

Generally speaking, the three main entirely different types of polarized debates are factual debate (whether some statement is objectively true, or false); value debate (whether one value is “better” than another value); and plan debate (whether a proposed plan can actually solve a problem that’s worth solving). This may sound pretty straightforward, but alas, it is not.

In basically every debate on every motion, the position (or what being “for” or “against” a motion even means) has to be clarified using a set of definitions. At the very least, you can imagine positions on any issue as a sliding scale, not a binary. For example — do you support the death penalty? Yes? No? Great, good for you. Just one question, what is death penalty?

Do you support every possible means of executing someone? Do you think there should be any age limit? What crimes should qualify one for death penalty? Do you trust every country on Earth with it equally? What if the person who deserves it by your criteria happens to be a pregnant woman? Your statement of support almost certainly requires many qualifications.

And even if you’re broadly against death penalty, different people are likely against it to different degrees, not to mention that there always will be significant edge cases. If you’re against death penalty, do you think it’s okay that states have armies, police forces, and secret agents with license to kill under specific circumstances? How should we stop terrorists?

In a competitive debate, there isn’t enough time to go into all of this very important detail and nuance, which is why the first speakers simply define what the debate will be about. In the real world, debating the nuanced differences between all the positions that can be taken, beyond assigning simple plus or minus, is essential, especially to achieve depolarization.

On our platform, a “debate”, or more accurately a conversation, would therefore still be structured, but not sided. It would be possible to see a new idea that somebody else presented and go straight to reinforcing it, without it having to undergo rebuttal. Rebuttal would still very much be an option, but the “competition” could end up being in steel-manning.

Instead of a simple proposition versus simple opposition, there will likely be many competing framings of, or “takes” on the issue at hand. While some conversation frameworks are inherently more binary than others and often will end up binary on our platform, like determining guilt versus innocence or factual truth versus bunkum, even those can support “takes”.

Take for example the presumably perfectly scientific, true/false question of whether there is some alien presence on Earth. My bet is that a truly constructive conversation about this topic would end up being about solving deficiencies in standard scientific and skeptical theory and methodology, with true/false debunking being limited to individual cases.

Overall, as an experienced debater, what I believe could be a game-changer in a non-sided debate is the redirecting of core incentives. In my high school debating days, I used to be a particularly effective opposing speaker. I was good at finding flaws in arguments and then taking them down. With a more constructive incentive, I could have been fixing those flaws.

It is again the debate adjudicators whose unique task in a debate it is to give constructive feedback. A little bit, at the end. What if every participant in a debate-like situation was giving constructive feedback to everyone else all the time? What if we were debating FOR each other? Imagine next time you see someone with a bad idea, you go “here, let me fix it for ya”, instead of “what a dumbass”. You’d still disagree, but with a smarter/better person.

I’m starting to think maybe what needs to be improved first is our whole theory of persuasion. Clearly, proving someone wrong with arguments is unlikely to change their mind. That’s what one does to show off to their homies who already agree with them, or to stroke their own ego. Maybe we should care less about disagreement and more about quality of positions.

In a constructive non-hostile conversation, the whole idea is, the hope is, that by the end, one will be enriched and transformed by that conversation. One does not learn and grow by proving that everyone else’s ideas are worse than their own. One definitely learns and grows by taking something flawed and unrefined and trying to make it more perfect.

What do you think? Do any of my ideas or arguments need more work? If you have anything to contribute, become part of our project: