Philosophy  •  April 20, 2014

The Art of Debate in the Digital Age

Debating with myself

When we think about the word “debate”, we commonly think of political debates, like presidential debates on TV. But oral debates in person and in front of an audience (even a few people) is a very rare situation for most of us. The conventional debating skills taught at schools or by executive coaches are not necessarily effective in real life debates. And the form/medium of debate is changing because the means of communication have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet. Most of us do not engage in formal debates but throughout our day, we are actually debating with many different people over many different matters. We just don’t think about them as “debates”; but they are. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how to effectively debate in real life and in today’s digital world.

What do I mean by “real life debate”? Let me first define what “formal debate” is: a good example of it is what takes place in courtrooms. It has well-defined structures (rules, protocols, procedures) within which to debate. It’s like boxing (sport) with its well-defined rules. “Informal debate” is one that we consciously think of as a “debate” but not strictly formal, like political debates and panel discussions. Although they are not formal, the participants are aware of the basic rules of debates, and neutral third-parties (audience, judges, moderators, hosts, etc.) are also present. “Real life debates” are all the rest that we do with our coworkers, business partners, spouses, and even friends.

Most debates in real life have no third-party judges, rules of engagement, or mutually agreed methods of resolution. They are essentially street fights. So, even great lawyers are not necessarily great debaters in real life, just as martial artists are not necessarily good at street fights. Your formal training in debates could even get in the way of debating in real life, because you end up assuming that your opponent too would follow the standard conventions. (If you are a wrestler, for instance, you wouldn’t expect your opponent to punch you.)

In real life debates, everyone tends to have his/her own internal “logic”, and depending on what you want to achieve with your debate, you might have to adopt his idiosyncratic logic. When you have no third-party judges, insisting that your logic is the right kind of logic would not settle any argument. Again, you can’t assume that your opponent would follow your rules.

Given that there are so many variables in real life debates, it’s a good idea to decide exactly what you want to get out of every debate. Are you trying to convince your opponent of something? Are you trying to win the approval of a third-party? Are you trying to learn something from the debate? Are you trying to test your debating skills? Are you debating as a means to arrive at better solutions or answers for everyone? Are you debating to improve and distill your own theories? Are you debating to defend your own position? Are you trying to discredit the established positions? There are many possible objectives. If you are not clear about what you want, you wouldn’t be able to choose the right strategy. And, it’s important to figure out what your opponent is trying to achieve too. When your objective is aligned with your opponent’s, you can have a more meaningful outcome.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you should not automatically choose debating as a means of convincing your opponent. Many people do not defer to logic. The old adage is true: “A Man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If you need to engage someone who does not defer to logic, don’t bother debating; simply manipulate his emotions by aligning what he wants with what you want. (Think Dale Carnegie.) In fact, if your objective is to achieve the desired result, irrespective of the means, this strategy generally works much better than debating.

Here’s an example from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Toula wants to go work for a travel agency but her father, Gus, wouldn’t approve. Toula’s mother, Maria, then sets up a meeting where she and her friend pretend to ask Gus for advice, skillfully nudging him to come to his own conclusion that the best solution to their problem is to send Toula to go work for the travel agency. He happily approves because he thinks it was his idea, and because the situation makes him look wiser and superior. (Here’s a YouTube clip of it starting at around 5:00.) Feels dishonest? Remember, if someone respects fairness, he would also respect objective ways of resolving differences. If he doesn’t, then it is a fair game to be unfair as in the scene above. The problem is his, not yours. So, debate only with people who respect fairness. We can manipulate the rest of them.

Being accountable of what you said is important in a debate, but not everyone respects this. So, you should avoid oral debates whenever possible; use email or other written mediums. (We now have so many.) Unless you are recording your debate or you actually have a third-party judge or audience, debating verbally would most likely lead to lack of accountability as it is possible to deny what you said or simply forget. You would end up debating in circles and your hope of arriving at any resolution would be quite slim.

Debating orally is like playing speed chess. Sure, it looks impressive if you can do it well, but logically winning isn’t about speed or a manner of delivery. Whoever has the superior argument wins; it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to come up with it. In real life, especially in our digital age, debating in person happens less and less. And, most debates happen over a long period of time, like a week or a month with one email a day. In most cases, there are no deadlines for resolution (unlike in courtrooms), so it’s better to be able to think deeply than fast. You need to be a real chess player, not a speed chess player.

I debate a lot, and have been debating all my life. Part of the reason why I became good at it is because I grew up debating with my older sister. We were constantly debating as kids. If you debate enough, you start to notice certain patterns. Certain strategies work while others don’t. Here are some of them that I’ve personally noticed.

The biggest obstacle to winning a debate is your own ego. You need to detach yourself from your own ego, and let your logic speak. Don’t let your ego distort your logic. By “ego”, I mean self-image. You have your own narrative of who you think you are which is pleasant enough that you feel secure. When arguing, this narrative is often disturbed or destabilized, especially when you start arguing about politics, religion, or philosophy. In my view, managing your ego is 90% of the skill in debating. You could have a huge ego, but don’t let it distort your argument.

If you make a mistake or misstate something, correct it as quickly as possible. Don’t try to defend it in order to save your face. If you catch the mistake early enough, it wouldn’t be so painful to your ego to correct it. But if you hold on to your ego, and defend your flawed argument, you would essentially be lying. You (your logic) knows you are wrong, but your ego wants to lie because it doesn’t want to be bruised. But as you know, one lie will always lead to more lies; eventually your position will be untenable. And, the longer you lie, the more painful it will be when the logic puts the last nail in your coffin.

Listen carefully to your opponent. Most unskilled debaters are too eager to say what they have to say that they do not listen (or read) the opponent carefully. They are too busy thinking about what they want to say. They selectively listen/read, ignoring arguments that are inconvenient or painful to their egos. It is not only disrespectful to your opponent, but also detrimental to your own argument if you respond without sufficiently understanding your opponent.

But putting your ego aside is easier said than done, and debating is probably one of the best exercises for improving your ability to do so. In martial arts, you take physical pain. In debating, you take emotional pain. The latter is a lot more painful than the former. Most people automatically give into their emotions when debating. If you fall into that trap, you will quickly lose. For instance, if you want to beat someone quickly in a debate, deliver your best argument with a touch of insult. Most people would not be able to set aside their ego and objectively evaluate your logic. Their urge to defend themselves and retaliate would overwhelm their decision making. Even if your argument is solid, they will end up lying (disagreeing with you even though they know you are right). They’ll just go downhill from there. Conversely, when your opponent says something insulting, don’t take the bait. Take a moment to relax and think clearly. Is he right? If so, let him have it. Don’t disagree, and acknowledge that he is right, and correct yourself. If you catch it early enough, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Just as in Judo, you can use your opponent’s momentum against him. For instance, during heated debates, I often see people say something like, “You are being so emotional over this,” or “Don’t get so worked up about it.” What they are trying to do is to insult you for being so immature, while painting the picture that they are staying calm and rational. They are hoping that by enraging you, you would make mistakes. Instead of denying, you could agree with him and provide a legitimate reason why you might be angry. You can also argue that there is nothing wrong with being emotional as long as you don’t let it distort your logic. Just because someone is being emotional, it does not mean that his argument is flawed. By the same token, your argument could be flawed despite the fact that you are calm. Emotional state per se has no bearing on the validity of your argument. In a heated debate, agreeing is the last thing your opponent is expecting, so using your opponent’s own argument against him has a highly destabilizing effect.

Another common mistake I see often: Don’t mix up deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. For instance, if someone is using inductive reasoning to make his case, pointing out an exception does not prove or disprove anything. Here’s an example of inductive reasoning from Wikipedia:

  1. Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
  2. Gareth is a person
  3. Therefore, Gareth is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Surprisingly many people would then counter this by saying something like: “But Mary is 24 inches tall!” This exception does not invalidate the original argument. It’s easy for you to get confused by such a response too; so look out for it.

If your opponent clams up and stops responding, save your breath. It means he has reached his limits. Everyone has limits. At that point, no matter what you say, he wouldn’t be listening to you. Don’t waste your time or energy. In fact, some people use silence as a tactic; to make you look foolish or immature for monologuing forever. Don’t fall for it either. Just say what you have to say and leave it there.

But even if you win a debate, it doesn’t mean that you are right, or that you have the truth. It could just mean that you are a better debater. Or, you just happen to come across a great argument. Or, your opponent was having a bad day. It could be any number of reasons. So, I usually do what my wife tells me to do, even if I win the argument. Don’t be cocky. If your opponent fought it fair and square, respect him/her for it. In most sports, especially in martial arts, what stops us from achieving better results is not our body but our mind. More important than our technical skills is our emotional capacity for debate, and our ability to keep our ego in check, not let it distort how we think and see the world. Ultimately, debating isn’t about winning (even though that is our immediate objective), but about training ourselves to better control our inner selves.