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The Art of a Debate is not all about crushing an opponent

October 17, 2009

The Art of a Debate is not all about crushing an opponent


There is an old idiom about having a debate that says you cannot begin to argue with someone unless you have some point of agreement. Otherwise it just becomes a bickering match with no purpose. Yet this is the first mistake that I see when looking at the many posts and web sites potted around the internet. So, many claim to be intellectual repositories but on closer examination turn out to be nothing but repositories of insults. If the pinnacle of intellectual ascendance is the sarcastic putdown then I am certain it needs a new definition.


One problem, as I see it, is that people set up these sites and blogs with expressed purpose of mentally vanquishing their enemies. They may have read a book or two, formulated a position on a matter and presumed that such a position should be shared by everyone. Even in a perfect world that delusion is bound to be shattered. Surprise, surprise, someone may disagree with all that you hold to be near and dear. If such a revelation only remained a surprise then that would be end of it but, for some their ego is so wrapped up with what they believe that descent is impossible to contemplate. “How dare Mr X disagree with my view on life the universe and everything?” Common courtesy has no place in this mindset and the people who hold it will often strike out to protect their egos.


Another problem is the one of skill, or should I say the lack of skill required to debate an issue. I am beginning to believe that ability to break apart an issue and examine its components is not being taught in school. Instead we seem to have a mash of deconstruction mixed with a political correctness as the touch stone for any argument. Words that have commonly known meanings suddenly have the opposite meaning and everything must answer to a collection of contemporary morality fads. Many people who cannot decipher the own logical fallacies presume to preach logic to others. I find it disappointing that clear thinking is become a shunned art form. In its place we have merely taught students to be spin doctors and only worry how things look in public. The deeper concern with deciphering baloney from sound logic seems to be missing from the collective psyche. Many arguments centre on assertions of Vox Populli, where the popular voice presumed to be the voice of reason. Or they appeal to emotion, fear, ignorance and ethnic identity. Special pleading in the form of ‘crying victim’ seems to be one of the most common mistakes people seem to be making. These and a whole raft of other lines of false argument may be very moving but will never be the substance of any considered thought. The heart may be moved but the mind is numbed.


A sad and sorry state has been the desire to defend a story even it is proven to false, misleading or a fraud. This is what government propagandists do when face with an embarrassing scandal, now it is what bloggers do when faced with failed post. I can point to several stories where the writer has not even tried to do their homework in an intellectually honest manner but have instead published what matches their person opinions even if it is totally false. It does not matter that story is wrong to such people because the argument is more important than the truth. Unfortunately I have also found that such people are very sensitive about their own mistakes and will howl like a baby when the correct evidence is revealed. Even journalists do not like being caught out by Media Watch.


Now it may seem very important to some that we should never rock the boat and correct the story. However when did the truth become subservient to not rocking the boat? For some ‘truth’ does matter. Only the lazy and frauds do not do their homework and verify evidence. It is much easier to just go to an activist website or Wiki and start typing away without a care in the world. Shamefully easy I would say.


We can be left with the puzzling dilemma of why issues need to be debated at all. This seems to be lost on those that are intent on running campaigns for a social or political agenda. They are not going to discuss what has already been scheduled for the PR blitz. Yet not everyone is running with an agenda and many want to explore and discuss issues so that they can understand them better. Some people would like to see where people are coming from even if they do not agree with their thesis. You cannot oppose what you do not understand any more than you can love what you do not know. Yet this is precisely what happens when people refuse to understand what they object to and in the process merely attack a cartoon parade of what they claim is true. If more people took the time to read what their enemies say then they would have more information to point out their actual grievances rather than rip into a bunch of straw men for the sake of bitter hatred.


In the end no one can make someone else agree to an argument. The argument may be forceful and convincing but without the consent of the listener if will never be accepted. There are many reasons why people do not accept the thrust of an argument. One is lack of convincing evidence; another is they were unconvinced by the logic; another is they addition information from another source that they find more convincing and another is that they would like to consider all evidence before making a decision. The whole question is in the hands of the listener or reader who can accept or reject any argument for their own reason. I guess that is what we call Free Will.


Copyright: Damian Murphy 2009


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