The Art of Polite Debate

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It’s official, we have lost the art of polite debate.

The evidence is littered across the pages of Facebook, scattered in the comments on YouTube videos and evident in any of our recent vision of political discussions.

There are two impediments to our ability to debate politely: 1) Our Target and 2) Our Beliefs.

Our Target

Our target has shifted. In the past it was simply the person with whom we were talking. Now it is anyone watching. So our arguments have to be inflated, exaggerated, entertaining, influencing and somewhat over the top. Not for the person we are debating but for anyone else who may be watching.

Our target has also moved from the subject matter to the individual. A healthy, logical argument would attack the subject and poke flaws at the process or logic that was used and during the discussion, offer an alternate, more robust and more logical method to come to a conclusion. Now it seems the first step (or if you are lucky, the second step) is to attack the individual.

When I say “attack” I really mean it. The abuse and vitriol that is used is astonishing and all it does is make the person being attacked more defensive and closed minded in their beliefs.

Our Beliefs

The Josh Wheedon film, Serenity, has a fantastic scene where the older cleric discusses how the government operative has a blinding belief that drives him and nothing can stop him because of the strength of his belief.

We see this every day.

Logic no longer has a place in many discussions, let alone debates. Some people’s beliefs are so strong that they can not even consider the undesirable impact of their beliefs. Their belief is so strong that they struggle to see why anyone could have a different perspective from theirs. Their belief is so strong that their mind is closed. Closed even to different approaches that may make their lives better.

So what can we do?

There are a couple of key elements to a healthy, polite and respectful debate:

  • Attack the subject and not the person – even if you think the other person is wrong, even if you don’t think they deserve it, treat them with courtesy.
  • Base your argument on proven facts – opinions are great but some are wildly inaccurate and damaging. Facts will always serve you well.
  • Be passionate about your position. Facts alone won’t do it but be careful not to be blinded by passion.
  • Be willing to be wrong. If you are not willing to even consider the opposing view point, how can you hope for your opposition to be open to your perspective.
  • Listen to what is being communicated. If you are unable to listen, your debates has just become a shouting match.
  • Don’t let your beliefs stop you from seeing the truth. The facts and truth have a power to them that beliefs never will. Sometimes you need to get out of your own road.
  • Let it go. Sometimes there are debates you will never be able to take part in (let alone win). These are the ones you have to walk away from. Adding fuel to the flame will only build a bigger fire and risk you getting burnt. Choose your debates wisely.

No matter what you debate, you can always do it politely and with respect while being passionate about your position.

So how will you practice the art of polite debate?