I make no claim to be a master at the traditional art of debate, but I have been at it for many many years and as such have gained some experience in the area. I was asked to share a little of my ideas about debate by a close friend and so here I am. Nothing here is anything other than my personal opinion about how to debate well and anybody who already thinks they know more than I do should probably read something else instead. :) Alternatively, if you have your own interesting ideas, why not share them in the comments below?
Before I start I want to make clear that I’m not talking about the sort of public debate that has a clear proposition and takes place in front of an audience. Such things are very structured and may often seem little more than a battle to say the things the audience most want to hear – like BBC’s Question Time. I am referring more to the simple debate that may spring up around the dinner table, at the pub, or elsewhere with a group of friends or colleagues. These, in my view, are the real debates. A chance to test your beliefs, arguments and ideology in the crucible of competing viewpoints, in a logical and philosophical way.
(1) Know your proposition
It is important to know, in a debate, what you are arguing about. This may seem obvious, but often the actual idea being discussed is framed in a broad way which makes it unclear. For instance, if somebody tells you they don’t believe in the existence of God in a way that suggests they would like some debate about it, you might ask them “why?” Because the debate isn’t really about the existence, or non-existence of God. It is about the key issues they have with God’s existence, or lack of. Once you know that, you may need to narrow it down still further. “I don’t believe in God because why would a loving God allow so much suffering in the world?” they may say. You could debate from that point, but it’s helpful to try and get to the root point they are making. “Is there some specific suffering you are referring to?” you might ask. You might also want to know: “How do you define suffering?” All these things may seem petty, but actually people often make dramatic assumptions about such things and you cannot engage with them until you know what their actual position is. The closer you get to their key points, the easier it is to frame a response which wont simply end up with hours of spiralling counterpoints. You would certainly take different positions if the answer to the definition of suffering was “Brutal regimes practising genocide”, or “the existence of Cancer and other terminal conditions,” as opposed to: “Some people are so much wealthier than others it’s not fair.” Knowing what sort of argument you are actually hearing is vital.
(2) Keep The Discussion Tight
It is a common tactic in debates to continually try and widen the debate into new areas. Sometimes this is a distracting tactic not aimed at philosophical wrestling but rather at simply creating a situation where the debate can appear to be “Won.” Other times its simply a person not practised in debate who is unable to focus on the issue at hand. So for instance if you are debating the importance of the NHS within the UK and somebody tries to draw the discussion, usually by loose comparisons, to the army or the police – point out that this is not within the scope of the debate and ask politely if you could please stay on track. By all means suggest that you could have that debate next, but preferably not until the current one is included.
(3) Logic Over Emotion
Debate should be an analytical and logical meeting of minds, where positions are taken and then challenged. If the position fails the challenge then be ready with a counter-argument or accept that the point is lost and move on. Avoid slipping into emotional outbursts. They are popular in debate because they can sometimes appear to give a superficial “victory” but generally they are simply an attempt to muddy the water, to close down a line of argument that is a little too successful, or to try and bully the other side into excusing themselves from the debate due to discomfort. In almost every case the application of relentless logic, coupled with analysis, experience and knowledge will lead to a confident conclusion of the discussion. Allowing yourself to be “drawn” by either negative or positive emotional pleas and attacks does nothing to further the cause of the debate. Another expression of this is to steer clear of people whose argument takes the form of a bunch of name-calling. “You would think that because you have no heart.” Or “Your argument is nearly as stupid as you are” and comments of that type have no place in debate. Point them out, expose them, and dare them to try and debate with real arguments instead of petty slurs. If an opponent seems to be getting angry, you should stay calm and polite. Argument via hot emotions is seldom effective. Simply point out that things have become a bit heated and ask if your opponent would like a little time to compose themselves?
(4) Recognise Hyperbole
You will often encounter an attempt to sound “reasonable” and “fair” using pithy crowd-pleasing statements that hold little meaning but sound very nice indeed. Rather than being allowed to lie unchallenged creating a minefield of illogic to manoeuvre they must be met by requests for definition. So if somebody says: “You are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine,” you should respond with something like: “Nobody said otherwise. But you are debating the issue and must attempt to prove your definition or concede you cannot.” If somebody tries to withdraw from a debate by using such a device, it is usually because they have lost faith in their ability to make their case. At this point you could let them draw back gently if that is your style, but you should point out the illogic in their final remarks.
(5) Losing Isn’t Bad
When you are new to debate you will “lose” a lot. This is because no matter how clever you are, if you haven’t faced a hubbub of conflicting ideas and logical challenges you will be in for a surprise. The more you debate the less often this will happen; or this should be the case if you are open-minded in debate (and if not – what’s the point?) This is because the more arguments you hear the more you will be able to develop responses to them, or at least understand how to frame your position in readiness for them. Eventually your arguments become like a set of familiar and well-kept tools which you are practised in using. Even so, every once in a while you will come across a new idea, a new position or a particularly well-crafted and consider point which will floor you. When this surprise left hook sends you reeling you should be pleased. This is a good thing. If an argument proves yours false, partially false, or unsafe, then you have no choice but to rethink where you stand on the issue and revise all other opinions which are affected by that. This is a very healthy, positive and useful outcome. It’s a new insight into knowledge and truth – and is it for these eureka! moments that you should value debate so much. However, if you lose simply because you didn’t pat enough attention to points (1) through (4) then you need more practice. But don’t worry, the opportunities for debate are far and wide and not at all uncommon.
(6) Never Argue From Ignorance
If you know very little about the issue at hand, or have no experience of anything like it, or both tread carefully. If you are also unable to empathise or creatively imagine an argument to the issue then withdraw from a debate. Never debate something you have no interest/knowledge/background in unless you know precisely what you are getting in for. Otherwise, you’ll just get your butt handed to you.
(7) Never Debate With A Victim
If somebody identifies themselves strongly with the debate subject in a very personal way, my advice is do not debate with them. If you must, tread carefully in the knowledge that this is extremely treacherous territory. For instance, it’s very hard to discuss euthanasia with somebody whose parents are both old and ill. It’s a bad idea to discuss abortion with somebody who just had an abortion. And so on. Some people are able to engage in such a debate despite their tragic or emotional experience, but often this is not the case. At the first sign of an emotional position being taken by a victim/sufferer/grieving I’d suggest you should withdraw from the debate.
(8) Study, Research, Learn
Try to learn about as wide a range of subjects and ideas as you can. Read everything – what agrees with you, what does not. Challenge yourself in the same way debate partners will challenge you. Develop your understanding, logical thinking and quick wits in as many debates as you can. If you lose the debate, that is as good a reason as any to get stuck deeper into that subject both so that you can do better next time and so that your ideas can find a new and truer form.
(9) Frame The Argument
If your opponent attempts to bring in your positions in other debates, do not allow it. Each debate is its own – positions in previous debates may be misunderstood, misquoted, mis-remembered, or simply fictitious. They may be taken out of context. You may even have changed your mind. It doesn’t matter, simply point out that it is this debate which is pertinent, not some older words in a whole other context. The same applies if colleagues, famous people or family are being quoted. Your position should be: “If you want to debate with them, that’s fine. But if you are debating with me, then I’d prefer with stay with my actual views instead of somebody else’s.”
Remember that the purpose of debate might be considered threefold. It is exercise for the mind, allowing the free thinker to experience new ideas and adjust your own where a powerful new factor has been revealed. It is an opportunity to chase Truth, such as there is such a thing as Truth one way to get there is through a personal evolution of your ideas. And finally – it really should be fun. Don’t take it personally and don’t be personal yourself. It’s about the pursuit of knowledge, not who is the most terrifying philosophical predator.