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Has the Art of Debate Disappeared from the Modern World?

January 28, 2010

Has the Art of Debate Disappeared from the Modern World?

Reasonable Discourse?


There have been two occasions where I have been asked adjudicate on line debates. One was with was with two people who wished to debate the issues of ‘heroes’ and the other was with two writers who wish to debate the ‘abortion’ issue. Why such debates took place and why I agree to act the adjudicator was simple. I had my personal view on both subjects but more than that I had belief that reasonable discourse was the best way to tackle controversial matters.


For months the only way that people were making their point made was through verbose screeds followed by personal attacks. This was a stark contrast to the previous two years of operation where minor hiccups and disagreements ending within a short period of time. Instead we had level of hostility that was threatening people with a barrage of abuse, false accusations, libel and in some cases cyber stalking. What was once a centre for intellectual discussion had became a pit of aggressive censure and self censorship for fear of attracting a vicious backlash. Eventually the site was to descend into official censorship of legitimate comment (but that is another story). It seemed so strange to me that people who claimed to be the smartest and wisest people on the planet could not make a point without resorting to nastiness or threats. The only point being made from this point on was that some people lacked the basic social graces to afford any other view except their own. (“And all in the name of liberty…” as AC/DC would say.) Hence when the opportunity came up to display how civilized people can behave when they disagree I leapt at it. The outcome of who won the debate was not as important as the fact that the real winner was civility.


I have often wondered what has happened to civility in my communications on line. Are we not meant to be educated to handle disagreements in a rational manner? Was the art of public debate dead due to the attention span of the internet? Had public discussion been reduced down to sound bites and cyber bullying? Or was it going to descend further and lead to violence where online threats became realized. These thought do go through your mind when you are removing pictures of your family in case they are pornographically defaced in an act of cyber revenge.


One of my favourite discoveries on line was the transcript of a debate between G K Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw called ‘Do We Agree.’ Shaw was a Fabian Socialist and committed to the policy of eugenics whereas Chesterton was an ex-socialist Catholic convert. I was to be a battle by two intellectual giant so diametrically opposed to each other that many people would have turned up just to see a rhetorical crash. What the audience received was one of the greatest and most cordial debates that had ever taken place. What Chesterton and Shaw had inadvertently achieved was the standard by which all future debates would be measured. This debate took place in the first half of the twentieth century.



You have to wonder if this era has passed and whether the modern world is no longer interested in hearing different points of view. Perhaps the power struggle to dominate has become a goal in itself and spin doctoring has replaced pertinent information. Perhaps people have forgotten that arguments are never won or lost, only valid points are made or lost. And in the interest of allowing a valid point to be made what hope do we have when everything is reduced down to PR campaign where demonizing the opponent is the quick fix.


However recently it came to my attention that the art of debate has not died completely. On 2007 a debate was organized by the Fixed Point Foundation between Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor John Lennox on the question of ‘The God Delusion’.

What we have is two professors from Oxford University debating in a civilized manner the arguments raised in Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead of the usual screed and emotionalized denunciations that take place we had a chance to see exactly where both sides of this debate were coming from. Dawkins obvious defended his work and Lennox critiqued his thesis. I think that had the discussions about religion versus science had taken place like this then there would very little for either side to fear from each other. I think that the debate was both informative and refreshing in its civility. At least now we can see where both sides of the debate are coming from and debunks the notion that “only idiots disagree with my side”.


If only this attitude of reasonable discourse would catch on then perhaps there would be less irrational name calling and unfounded fear mongering.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. similimodo permalink
    January 30, 2010 11:59 am


    The sites we’re on now might not receive a lot of comments, but it’s ‘pleasant’ to blog on peaceful sites.

    David …


  2. January 31, 2010 8:41 am


    Thanks for your comments.
    One of the reason that I chose a site like wordpress is because it was not exlcitely a social network. Often an immediate audience is counterproductive to good writing. At best we get kind of football ranking of the most contronversial subjects and little scope for nuences.

    Less comments does not always mean less intelligent feedback.


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