Debate is about difference, not consensus

by The Editor

ARTICLE: There is a general and increasingly pervasive attitude that the purpose of debate is to secure consensus. That is, rather than a forum to determine which arguments and ideas are the most cogent or insightful, debate is seen as means to compromise and appease. That, however, is to denude debate of its greatest potential contribution: knowledge and understanding. When mere expression is the end, the means (rationality, evidence and reason) suffer in turn. For what is the point of trying to convince if just by speaking you are already fêted?

Debate is about difference, not consensus

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 September 2012

Debate is the forum in which difference negotiates. Thus those fear debate, fear difference. Its role in a democracy is thus fundamental. Difference is primary and, unless able to express itself, unable properly to gauge, promote or defend its position in the world. Indeed, that is debate’s very point: to determine the validity of an argument and the veracity of the evidence upon which it is built. Thus, true debate is helpful not only to those engaged in it but to those who might listen to the arguments it proffers. And the insights it generates are often of value to a far wider audience than just those responsible for their construction.

Debate’s competitive nature is often downplayed by the politically correct. They choose instead to place their emphasis on the fact that it is a forum, as opposed to a battle of ideas. In other words, they argue, its real benefit is that it offers a platform from which one might express a view, rather than test it. ‘You must respect my right to debate’, they say, as if their very expression constitutes an argument. But that is to strip debate of its potential value – the ability to reveal the full nature of an opinion and its relationship to other positions and ideas, through conjecture and refutation. No debate achieves anything of real value if the contradictions and differences inherent in it are suppressed out of appeasement or some conflict-averse compromise. Then, no one learns anything. That is not to encourage hostility, although an argument pursued passionately is more likely to benefit from one’s full attention.

In contrast to a society that embraces debate is one that in the grip of some or other hegemonic idea. In such an environment ‘debates’ are often not debates at all, but mere pretence. Their purpose is not intellectual interrogation nor is their motivation to increase knowledge or further understanding, rather to engender agreement. And, to be clear, not to seek out those things on which two people might agree, but rather to confirm from first principles that there is nothing about which they disagree. The distinction is all important.

A debate can be enforced, but to do so is to constrain its full effect; for if someone is unwilling to engage, they are no doubt unwilling to listen and their minds likely closed to the possibility that they might learn. Rather any debate should be entered into willingly and its parameters determined by the requirements of all rational discourse: chiefly, should a more powerful argument be put forward, one be willing to adjust one’s thoughts accordingly. That is not to say one should approach every debate with a possible concession in mind, rather to convince and persuade, but there is a fine line between self-belief and absolute belief and the nearer one strays towards the latter, the more the quality of any given debate suffers.

There exists a common misconception that a ‘good’ debate necessarily results in some kind of consensus. This is not so. A good debater might well be able to compel one to agree with their point of view and impose upon an audience a different position through reason and logic but it need not result in agreement – if anything, a greater appreciation of difference. At the same time, to the closed mind a compelling argument serves little purpose, because that mind is shut to the very idea of difference itself. Then the onus to convince is unfairly placed upon the shoulders of those that might offer some alternative, one either unconventional or incompatible with the status quo, because it will never be accepted, whatever its authority.

In truth, much of that burden lies with an audience. It is never a passive observer, always an active participant – the very litmus test for a debate’s quality and the lessons that might be learnt from it.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.