How I debate

Many of us feel that the current intellectual climate is difficult to bear. When I first noticed the phenomenon, people told me that it was because of Donald Trump. He just made it impossible to debate calmly. But now that Trump is gone, the climate is just as bad and, if nothing else, much worse.

Debates are essential in a free society. The alternative to debate is force. Either you convince your neighbour to do as you think they should do, or else you send men with guns to his place.

It is tempting, when you have the upper hand, to use force and aggressive tactics against your opponents. However, this leaves little choice to your opponents: they have to return the favour. And if you both live long enough, chances are that they will.

Civility is a public good. We have to all commit to it.

I do not pretend to be the perfect debater. I make mistakes all the time. However, I try to follow these rules.

  1. Do not hope to change people’s core stance. This rarely, if ever, happens. That is not why we debate. If someone is in favour of Brexit and you are not, you can argue until you are blue in the face and they won’t change their stance. One of the core reasons to debate is to find common ground. People will naturally shy away from arguments that are weak. You can see a debate as a friendly battleground. Once the battle is over, you have probably not taken the other person’s moat, but if you did your job, you have enticed them to drop bad arguments. And they have done the same: they have exposed weaknesses in your models. It implies that the debate should bear on useful elements, like arguments and facts. It also implies that debate can and should be productive… even if it never changes anyone’s stance.
  2. Your goal in a debate is neither to demonstrate that the other person is bad or that you are good. Let people’s character out of the debate. This include your own character. For example, never argue that you are a good person. Reject character assassination, either of yourself or of others. The most popular character assassination tactic is “by association”: “your employer once gave money to Trump so you are a racist”. “You read this news source so you are part of their cult.” You must reject such arguments, whether they are applied to you or to others. Another popular tactic is to question people’s motives. Maybe someone works for a big oil company, so that explains why they are in favour of Brexit. Maybe someone is a member of the communist party, and that’s why they want to give the government more power. It is true that people’s motives impact their opinions, but it has no room in civil debate. You can privately think that a given actor is “sold out”, but you should not say it.
  3. Shy away from authority-based arguments. Saying that such and such is true because such and such individual says so, is counterproductive because the other side can do the same and the debate will be sterile. You can and should provide references and sources, but for the facts and arguments that they carry, not for their authority.

I believe that a case can be made that without a good intellectual climate, liberalism is bound to fade away. If you want to live in a free society, you have to help enforce good debates. If you are witnessing bad debates, speak up. Remind people of the rules. In fact, if I deviate from these rules, remind me: I will thank you.

Further reading: Arne Næss.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “How I debate”

  1. The alternative to debate is force.

    Isn’t there a 3rd alternative that would help in most cases: accepting the fact that the other person doesn’t have to agree with you?

    1. You have to accept that people will disagree with you, but even so, you need to reach some common ground. You simply cannot live with people who do not follow the same rules. Well, maybe you can, but then that’s not a liberal society.

      If someone comes into your house with a gun, you call the cops and they use force. But that is, hopefully, an extreme case. Most social interactions do not work this way. So maybe you are gay and you want to get married. There is no law to allow that. You can take guns and get people to change the law. Or you can talk with them. Sure, they will disagree. But then, over time, you may reach some kind of compromise that works better than the prior status quo. You cannot make everyone agree with gay marriage, but you can build a stable consensus around the idea. So maybe you get you get gay marriage, but the Catholic priests do not have to recognize it as part of their religion. It is not exactly what you’d wanted, but it is progress and everyone is ok with it.

  2. I find that understanding where the other person is coming from (what lies behind their position) is more instructive than the position itself. For example, knowing that pervasive distrust of institutions is behind a particular person’s anti-vax stance means that I can both understand the position, and helps me position any argument I offer to be one that might reach them (or conversely save me from offering arguments that will be dismissed a priori), to your point.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that most of the people who argue on the Internet are a relatively small sliver of humanity – the ones who are most passionate about “the thing”. Those who are most passionate are likely the least objective. Tackling them head in is almost always counterproductive.

  3. It is interesting that you gave three rules of debate; the famous polymath Anatol Rapoport also gave three rules of debate back in 1960, now often called Rapoport’s rules of debate. Rapoport’s rules are listed in Wikipedia, for example, where there is also a useful reference list of related publications; see:

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