The Value of Debate

"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."
-Joseph Joubert
The word "debate," I have found, often has a negative connotation in our culture. Unless you're speaking about a formal, competitive, or professional debate, people will take issue with the subject. It's common for people to say such things as, "let's agree to disagree," or to simply avoid topics of a sensitive nature. Especially online, any form of debate is highly discouraged, and internet debates are spoken of almost with a combination of ridicule and horror. However, I believe that debates are valuable, and should be entered into on a regular basis.

Imagine that person Aidan and person Beatrice are having a friendly conversation one day, when they discover that they have differing stances on a particular subject of sensitive nature. At this point, they have a few options. They could say "let's agree to disagree." They would find another topic to discuss, and at the end of the day, each would go their separate ways holding the same opinions they held before. Or, instead, they could debate the controversial topic. Assuming that each is open minded, a number of possibilities lie down this path. One (or both) of them could learn that he or she had been wrong, and change his or her mind. Or it could be that neither knows the topic quite well enough to convince the other, but they each walk away with a better understanding of the other side. In either case, their time has been well spent.

In the first scenario, where they change the subject, nothing changes. The status quo remains the same, and neither has been hurt or improved. A debate changes the status quo. By the end of the discussion, something is different. Ideally, that something is for the better, as one or more people have learned something. However, this isn't always the case. Sometimes a debate causes pain, and nobody learns. The status quo changes, but for the worse. Because of this, there are certain rules when it comes to debate. Certain ways of debating that must be followed by all parties involved.

Internet debates are highly discouraged by most people that I've come into contact with, because of what they can turn into. Often times, the result of an internet debate is a flame war. Because the internet is more or less anonymous, people feel safer in lashing out. In addition, people's statements can often be misinterpreted as intentionally insulting, because we have no way of writing intonation over the internet (though, proper grammar and spelling can help). However, I have found that, when properly executed, internet debates can be far more beneficial than a debate in person. Because debates are based on logic rather than emotions, a lack of intonation can actually be helpful in sorting out the points themselves. The points, after all, should be the same, regardless of intonation. So, whether in real life or online, the people involved in a debate must be willing to address the issues directly, and respond directly to the points made by the opposing side, without lashing out or insulting their opponent.

There are, of course, times when debates should not be attempted- e.g., in the comments section on YouTube. Not because it's the internet, but because the people there are likely to turn it into a flame war instead of a beneficial discussion. It only takes one person to derail a debate. One person to insult, one person to respond indirectly and ignore your points, one person to dodge the issue. However, in situations where you can trust the other person to do their part (and, of course, when you're willing to do your part), debates bring about a change to the status quo that is positive, rather than just leaving things how they are.
"In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest."
-William Penn

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