A Word on Debate

Debate is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when we hold firmly to a position, there is a danger to misread our opponents. Then, when faced with strong arguments, we tend to look only for the small items that are weak in what our opponents have said, and attack those things, rather than the strength of the opponents’ positions. I am not aiming this at anyone in particular, mind you. It is merely something about debate that I have witnessed, and no doubt I have done it myself. I would suggest a reorientation of thinking on debate. I’m not making this a rule or anything for this blog. However, here is a suggestion: hunt very carefully for the very strongest things about our opponents’ arguments, acknowledge what is strong about them, and then attempt an answer. What we are so often tempted to do is nitpick, and then think we have answered the opponent, when the only thing we have done is to aggravate them. The opponent likes to know that the strength of his position has been acknowledged. This is a platform for much more helpful and constructive forms of debate. I think that I have at least tried to do this in the past, though with undoubted unevenness as to the results. It is something to which I am going to commit myself, and to which I encourage my readers to commit themselves as well. I know the frustration of unanswered strength. It has happened so many times. I will write a blog post in a debate, and the opponent will nitpick at the argument, ignoring the strength entirely, and only going after the weakest points. This does not raise credibility, but only gives the impression that the opponent is trying to score points. A debate is not a competition.

The other aspect about the nitpicking form of debate that is distressing is that it makes the nitpicker sound a bit desperate. Are we really so unsettled in our opinions, so waffling, so invertebrate, so lacking in confidence, that we cannot face the strength of opposing viewpoints? It is all too easy to brand our opponents with stupidity, ignorance, or muddled thinking, and think that we have therefore answered their arguments. Logic doesn’t work this way. Neither does civilized debate. Why can’t we acknowledge plausibility in our opponents’ statements? Are we so defensive? It has been said that the more unsure we are of our positions, the more voluble and angry we become in defending our positions. I have seen a fair bit of that on this blog. The other possibility, of course, is that some people privilege truth over love. Neither should be privileged over the other, nor should they even be in competition. Unity can only be obtained around the truth. How can two walk together unless they are agreed? However, truth cannot trump love, either. It seems evident that truth is more under attack today than love is. Everyone loves love. Few love truth. But that fact does not give us an excuse to ignore love or sideline it in the interests of truth.

On Bryan Cross’s recommendation (I asked him what he thought the best Roman Catholic books were on the nature of Catholicism, and he gave me quite a good list, which I am working my way through), I am currently reading Morerod’s Ecumenism and Philosophy. One of the fascinating points he makes about ecumenism in that book, and one I think that relates closely to the subject of this blog post, is that ecumenical debate stalls when it talks only about the things that both sides have in common. On the one hand, that might seem like mere common sense. It is a point, however, that most ecumenical endeavors seem to miss. He argues that the only way ecumenism can move forward is to address the differences head on, and actually focus on those, and be honest about them. Only then can mutual understanding happen without the fear that the very real differences are being shoved under the rug. A point I wish to extrapolate from this is the following: why do we engage in debate? Is it to bring out the nature of the differences for the sake of mutual understanding? Is it to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong (and thus to stroke my own ego)? Is it to convince our opponent? Is it a combination of these things? How about a pursuit of the truth? Properly to understand the nature of the difference means that we must listen well. There hasn’t been a lot of that on my blog. Many engage in debate for the purposes of crushing the opponent into the dirt. I would suggest that this is not a very good reason for debate. I want light on the issues more than heat.