The political sphere in the Anglophone world is, to put it mildly, polarised. Scandals and controversies flood our news feeds, and people scream at each other or type furious insults on the internet. Big political issues have become so emotive that discussing them with people of different political persuasions – even close friends – can become a minefield of potential flare-ups and insults.
Usually, the politicians are amongst some of the worst offenders, playing to their audiences or toeing the party line in order to score cheap political points against their opponents. However, occasionally one of our elected officials will raise their head and vaguely suggest that “we need a proper debate” on such-and-such controversial issue (immigration is the favoured one in the UK at the moment). This sounds all very reasonable, as it is supposed to. However, I would disagree.
We don’t need debate. We need conversation.
Before I get to the nitty-gritty of my argument, a definition of terms might be useful. If we look at the OED, we will find that the majority of definitions relating to the word “debate” involve conflict or aggression – the oldest meaning (and the one closest to its etymological root) is “Strife, contention, dissension, quarrelling, wrangling; a quarrel.” You have to scan quite far down the page before the word “discussion” appears, and then only in the context of a “dispute” or “controversy”. Compare this with “conversation”, which is inherently more harmonic and consensual in root – indeed, one archaic meaning refers to “sexual intercourse or intimacy.”
Where am I going with all this? I am not looking at the linguistic roots of these words to be pedantic, but merely to outline my point. Debate is inherently antagonistic and confrontational. It assumes “winners” and “losers”, and often is based on rhetorical tricks rather than fact. If someone “wins” a debate, there is often the inherent assumption that their opponent’s ideas have been completely exploded, which is often simply not true. Furthermore, debate is often very formal and structured, with tight time limits – look at the rules for parliamentary-style formal debates. Ideas are usually – especially in the political sphere – extremely complex. The notion that the various merits of one proposal or the other can be properly explored within tight formulaic speeches seems rather false in my opinion.
This is not to say I think debate has no place at all, of course. I love a battle of wits as much as the next man, and I realise the practical reasons for formally structuring debates in the public sphere. Furthermore, debate can be useful for clarifying certain elements of political proposals, and for training people to think critically. However, in our particularly-fractured political discourse, I think it would now be more useful to move the focus towards conversation and away from debate.
Conversation or dialogue, in comparison to debate, is more harmonious and inclusive. The way I see it, in conversations you try to find common ground and work up from there, ironing out the differences as you go along. It is the sort of dialogue that can be used to great effect in diplomacy, for instance. Rather than trying to crush an opponent’s argument, you look for the underlying strengths in your fellow conversationalist’s opinions, and they do the same for you. All the participants in the conversation should see themselves as working towards a common understanding, rather than attempting to prove themselves right. It involves humility, an open mind and a willingness to accept that you are not always correct, and your supposed ‘opponents’ are not always wrong.
This might sound a little wishy-washy and overly optimistic – perhaps it is, partly due to our current media tastes. One of the reasons the antagonistic debate has become so popular is because it is fun. We like the competitive element, the verbal thrusts and ripostes, the jeers and boos of the audience. We love it when a hardball journalist catches a politician out and gets them to say something that is controversial. But I think the heavy focus on adversarial debate in the political sphere has now gone too far and has indeed poisoned it, to some extent. Politicians now almost never say anything interesting or original because they are terrified of being “caught out” and having their words turned into political ammunition by their opponents. The array of suitable responses – and even topics – for politicians has narrowed and narrowed to absurdity. It is now seen as better to sound like a broken record, brazenly repeating the party line in the face of questioning, than admit a mistake or give an actual opinion. No wonder most political discourse now is reduced to bland statements and short soundbites devoid of meaning.
Furthermore, I don’t think it would take too much effort to slowly turn around the ship towards conversation. We could begin with doing away with hour-long panel shows, for a start (think of Question Time, for instance). These shows have far too many panellists and far too many questions for the short time allowed. As such, the panellists (especially if they are politicians), given only about a minute or two to respond, blurt out prepared responses and engage only superficially rather than truly tackling the issues at hand. A long-form conversation on a single issue would be more useful, I think – start it with public figures who are not politicians, and then introduce our elected representatives once they are willing to talk to one another rather than score points. Maybe then we might tilt towards a consensual, rather than adversarial, approach to political issues.
My second burst of optimism comes from the internet, surprisingly. The mainstream media almost certainly won’t change unless forced – they are too corporate, too stuck in the old ways of doing things. However, the internet gives us a glimmer of hope. Successful productions like the Joe Rogan Experience and the Rubin Report show that there are still people interested in talking to the ‘other side’. True, these two shows are not without flaws and the presenters tend to come from a particular political perspective, but still there is an interest in civilised conversation between individuals of differing opinions that does not have to descend to petty rivalries and tribalism. I would recommend watching the Rubin Report’s recent conversation on the nature of God and Morality, between an atheist and a religious conservative. While it is does sometimes become a little overly-adversarial, the two men do really try to find common ground and leave the conversation in a friendly manner, with no sense of “winning” or “losing”.
Compromise is necessary in civilised society. Conversation is necessary in civilised society. Let’s try and move away from antagonistic politics and towards a more consensual view of the world. Almost all of us want the best for ourselves and society, regardless of how we think that can be achieved – can we not start from that common ground, and work up from there?