Tag Archives: debate

Sometimes it Pays to Not Take the Bait

[Forbearance is sometimes the best policy. It’s common to respond to every provocation. It’s even easier since our retorts can often be anonymous. But as this 2014 post notes, there is a degree of grace in letting a misguided view pass without a response]

 

In the age of Trump every verbal action seems to trigger a response. Judgments are easy and somehow self-affirming. It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes. Since others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas or acts; the least we can do is return the favor

Aristotle was one of the first to systematically describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged. He equated the ability to make counter-arguments as just another form of personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that seem to need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings our indignation to the fore. Many websites welcome comments, the majority of which are misguidedly protected with anonymity. And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude. The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays and narratives seem to wilt in their absence. What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments? To make matters worse, some of us actually get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

There are many circumstances when the urge to respond is worth suppressing. Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding or hurtful, or simply the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down.

The psychological rewards are overrated.

Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to correct them. But they are probably determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this. The former President had a hot temper. Even before he was elected he had more than his share of critics. But his approach to responding to criticism made a lot of sense. In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation. But he usually didn’t mail them. The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words can have at least two advantages. The first is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway. We tend to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.” The second advantage is that rapid responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. In addition, fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening. Just listen to almost any interview with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Time gives us a better perspective. It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged. Most importantly, it helps us break the cycle where one wounding response is simply piled on to another.

So Called “Debates”

In true debates, the press simply listens like the rest of us. In an authentic debate there may be moderators, but not questioners.

The political season always brings out a cycle of “debates” finally agreed to by cautious candidates and news organizations. Though everyone involved has different motives, the one most commonly expressed is that these events offer the public the chance to compare candidates side by side. In the unfettered give-and-take of a debate we are supposed to learn about issues that divide or maybe even unify those running for the same office.

Even so, most of these joint appearances fall short in testing persons and ideas. As usually formatted, they can’t achieve these lofty goals, for two reasons.  First, the response times for individuals are always too short, often a minute or less. Bernie Sanders is right to call them “demeaning.” And second, for no valid reason the press wants in on the action as well.  The quid pro quo is free airtime, if they can be part of the show.

Ideally, debates should deliver what philosophers call “dialectic:” a purposeful clash of views where claims and evidence are tested against a series of counter-arguments. Among others, Aristotle was certain that acts of public advocacy had a cleansing effect on the body politic. He believed we are wiser for subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others. This may sound lofty and abstract, but most of us do a form of this when we talk through a pending and important decision. We often want friends to help us see potential problems in a planned course of action.

In open societies such as ours we expect to hear contrasting opinions. It’s a wonderful process when it’ well-formatted. Otherwise—and as devised by most political operatives—a political debate is usually is little more than a joint press conference.

The candidates share part of the blame. They usually fear these exchanges. They and their staffs believe that a serious gaff can sink an entire campaign. So they hedge their bets. They agree to “debates” if they are moderated by a panel or at least a single journalist. The logic of journalism is to ask new questions at frequent intervals. This is when the process begins to go south. It’s further doomed when each side is given only a minute or so to respond. These errors are then compounded with a final counter-response that is barely the length of a sneeze. As it now exists, it’s little more than a lukewarm form of political theater.

A good debate will have no more than a moderator or time-keeper to equalize participation and keep things civil. The advocates directly address the claims and arguments of their opposites on what is usually a single broad but important subject area. Their opening remarks must be permitted to be longer than a television commercial. They then listen, refute, question, and challenge each other. When one issue seems to have been exhausted, the moderator may steer the pair to a related issue and then get out of the way.

Lincoln and Douglas debated for hours by themselves without the assistance of others. Indeed, a prime form of Saturday night entertainment in the nineteenth century was a formal debate in a town’s biggest venue. The whole process of seeing two leaders explain their ideas under the scrutiny of an interested audience could be invigorating. By contrast, the short question-based formats commonly in American political debates generally ruin the chance to see how much a candidate truly knows, beyond the memorized sound bites that they repeat at every stop. Just when follow-up rebuttals might begin to test a candidate’s knowledge of an issue, the questioners usually interrupt and move on to a new topic.

Several years ago Americans could catch a series of debates in the United Kingdom between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond on Scotland’s referendum to go it alone as an independent nation.  Scotland ultimately voted to stay: an outcome that might not hold these days, given their current displeasure with London’s intention to leave the E.U.

The original debates weren’t perfect by any means. But these televised clashes had the advantage of allowing both sides sufficient time to make essential arguments and extended refutations. As can be seen with the never-ending Brexit debate, the British expect that members of the government and individual M.P.s will be able to stand up under sometimes challenging counter-arguments from their ideological opponents.

Debates should extend beyond glib assertions of support or opposition.  In the United States we rarely let candidates go on long enough to discover if they have confronted the full consequences of their positions.