Tag Archives: dialectic

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.

We May Need to Start Teaching Conversation Skills

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight Source: U-tube
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight        Source: U-tube

There are good but troubling reasons to predict a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach conversation skills.

It’s easy to imagine that our absorption with digital media will soon require adjustments to school curricula to formally model the process of engaged conversation.  With rates of attention to screens at astronomical highs, Americans seem to be spending less time directly conversing with each other in the same physical space.  And while it has become a cliché to bemoan “the lost art of conversation”—virtually every parent of a thirteen year old will express this in some form—there are good reasons to expect a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach and model the skills of direct engagement.  Schools with low teacher-to-student ratios already do this as a pedagogical style.  It’s natural to put learning within a conversational frame.

To understand the importance of conversation we need to remember that the central model for communication is the dialogue.  From the dialogues of Plato to the advocacy-saturated screenplays of Aaron Sorkin, the act of talking with another is taken to be the generative source of how we discover who we are and what we believe. By comparison, a monologue can seem like an orphan: a living thing withering without its natural counterpart.

The Greeks were among the first to enshrine the truth-testing as a representative purpose of entering into direct discussion. The power of “dialectic”–the give and take of discussion–is not simply as rhetorical decoration for professional philosophers.  We know what’s at stake every time our ideas or preferences are challenged by others. Can we successfully respond?  Can we defend what we believe?  Conversations do not have the sparkling repartee of a dinner with André. But they need the feature of putting two people in the same space to be immediate interlocutors with each other.  Anonymous comments added at the bottom of an online post just won’t cut it.

Consider Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of films about love gained and lost—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).  All of these popular features are constructed as extended conversations over the life cycle of a relationship. Linklater wrote the films with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the actors who fully embody the couple. A viewer ends up enthralled not because of what they do, but because of what they say. They are alive to the world and the choices they’ve made. They appear to know each other in ways that couples who have become mute cannot match.

Another important writer/director makes the same point by giving us just the reverse: fascinating models of conversation that have metastasized into something more toxic. David Mamet is known to audiences and actors as the creator of encounters crippled by stilted exchanges.  His characters typically flounder in a choppy surf of incomplete sentences, corrosive asides and blank stares. In films like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), they mostly pay the price.  Misunderstandings are compounded.  Distrust begins to flourish.  And characters are unable to complete thoughts without resorting to abusive threats.

By contrast, young kids are natural conversationalists. Most  like to talk. They want to exercise their growing curiosity about others. Reading a book with a child is often a delight (unless you are in a hurry) because almost every page is an invitation for commentary and questions. Reading is not the solitary activity it becomes in adulthood.  With more age, the conversational impulse isn’t necessarily killed, but it’s smothered in packaged media content that is still mostly one-way. As it is now, a child in a home brimming with screens seems to be pushed to move from early loquaciousness to comfortable spectatorship. Most of my colleagues note that coaxing even high-performing college students into conversational can be a challenge.

This will all need to change if we want to produce a new generation of active listeners and engaged problem-solvers.  We are simply going to have to start earlier to teach and model the kind of animated conversational skills that define what it means to be fully alive to the moment.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu