Over the past week many, many people have witnessed two high-profile debates about U.S.-centered politics. My interest is in ideal debates, and, quite understandably, neither the presidential debate nor the pundit debate were aiming for that standard. Nevertheless, without any hope of affecting the level of discourse evident in both of those debates, there are a number of things that I think must be done to ensure that debates are productive.
To begin: why debate in the first place? What is the goal? As Jon Stewart mentioned, part of the goal ought to be the demonstration that we call all live civilly, and engage in substantive discussions, with those we disagree with vehemently. However, in order to merit the title of ‘ideal debate,’ the exchange of views must accomplish something more: the participants must learn something from each other. That means that each participant must come to the debate sure of their own views, yet equally sure that they cannot possibly be all-knowing, and must therefore stand to learn something about how another person (or group of people) see the world. There would be a tremendous shift in discourse if this goal were achieved even in the minimal sense that each person engaging in such a high-profile debate knew that they stood to learn better how the other person sees the world, even if they remain 100% convinced that they are right (as Bill O’Reilly implied he did) the whole time. An even higher bar would be to truly exhibit intellectual humility and know that the person standing behind the other podium has a better grasp on (at least) one of the issues under discussion, and that it would be a personal failure for you to finish the debate without modifying your own views in light of theirs.
Another important question is: how to debate? What should an ideal debate look like? It should not look like a sparring match, with each side trying to trip the other one up, interrupting them and getting the last word in. The number of issues to be discussed should be small enough to really engage in them in the allotted time. I know that the presidential debates felt too academic and detail-oriented at times, but I do not think that that was the fault of the topics as much as the way the conversation progressed. However, debates are not meant to be entertaining the same way a Half-Time show is. They are an ideal format for experts to elucidate ideas and educate the public on their views and where they differ from each other. To give a
concrete example of the types of issues that could — productively — be focused on in a debate: Bill O’Reilly said (and I paraphrase) that Jon Stewart insulted every American by claiming that the U.S. as a country is about enveloping the poorest and most needy among us back into the fold of society. Unfortunately, the debate almost immediately progressed to the next question, where I think that an ideal debate would have taken at least the next 5-10 minutes to analyze the fundamental difference of opinion that that statement captured. Upon entering a debate, there is no way of knowing where such a disagreement lies, but once it arises, it is up to the participants (and the moderator) to make the most of the situation and scrap the scripted elements to make time for the real purpose of the debate.
Debates clearly have a role to play in public intellectual life. The public deserves to know where presidential candidates stand in relation to a bevy of issues, and experts in many other fields can benefit both themselves and their audiences in clarifying their positions. Given a sufficient interest, however, it would be most beneficial to state clearly what we are trying to gain by staging public debates, and aim to meet those goals, rather than letting debating be the foremost spectacle of rhetorical flourish and little more.
Update (15/10/12): For more thoughts on what a productive debate would look like in the US Presidential context, see here