Americans today are afflicted by a lack of debate, primarily because we do not debate effectively. Despite the claims of most politicians, pundits, and members of the media, the tongue-in-cheek proclamation of cookie-cutter positions does little to weigh competing ideas, and it is my purpose to demonstrate why.Disagreement is not debate; it is the beginning of it. Debate entails a clash between opposing ideas, not merely their voicing. Debate is not character assassination; it is the discussion, evaluation, and weighing of comprehensive arguments given in support of each respective position on a given issue in light of our values and goals.
Typically, “debates” between individuals never reach this point: people tend to react poorly to a position inimical to their own and become too irritated to make much sense, even if their own position is entirely flawed because of objective reasons (illogical arguments, false assumptions, and so on).
Perhaps more importantly, it seems that formalized “debates” never fulfill the above goals either. Why is this?
Part of the problem stems from our glorification of opinion. People seem to think that they are entitled to hold opinions regardless of how flawed, inexplicable, inconsistent, or absurd they are, but this doesn’t make much sense.
Failure to accept a common system of how to make an argument – namely, one involving logic and facts – will lead us nowhere, and we therefore need to accept a system even if that means making our own viewpoints vulnerable to attack.
Some arguments aren’t arguments at all. For example, “Bush is stupid” is not an argument. I highly doubt that those who say this mean to say that Bush fulfills a certain set of criteria, the fulfillment of which is sufficient to show that his intellectual powers are congruent with the meaning of the pejorative term “stupid.” Maybe they don’t like Bush, or they think that he is wrong; if so, they should argue that, and not simply spew the currently favored partisan rhetoric.
Another part of the problem are the assumptions we make during the course of an argument. The above paragraph may have suggested to you that I am a Bush supporter; you may have assumed that simply because I did not use Kerry in my example. If you have made this assumption, you are like most people; and like most people, you would be wrong.
We tend to think that disagreeing with a particular position places us in the opposite camp, but this is not necessarily the case. No political party holds a monopoly on the truth, and we cannot be so absolutist in our political dispositions as to leave no room between the extremes.
There is not enough room here to go through every fallacy one can fall into over the course of a debate. These problems are not liberal or conservative in nature, but rather with the way we converse, regardless of our viewpoints.
Until we better grasp the techniques for rigorous arguments, it does not seem that we will fully understand one another; and until we understand each other, the process of the clash and resolution of ideas that is so important to the continuation of our country cannot take place.