Dishonest Debater

By devin, 26 July, 2018

I am a dishonest debater.

I remember being around 7 years old and arguing with my brother. Some adult had told us in the past not to run when crossing the road, and I agreed. My brother, a little older and a little more rebellious, still wanted to run across the road. One day, he did, and I confronted him.

"Don't run across the road" I (proudly) stated.

"Why not?" he (reasonably) asked.

At this point I was in trouble. I had no idea why it was a bad idea (at least in my best recollection). I ended up spinning a convoluted argument about how he might run, suddenly realize in the middle of the road that there was a car coming, trip, and then get hit by a car.

It wasn't my proudest moment in debate, and I can tell you that I didn't convince him. I wish I had learned something all those years ago, but I don't think I have.

The thing is, I frequently catch myself doing this while arguing for something I truly believe is true. The debate could be about religion, health care policy, or even just about what the best pizza topping is. Often I care deeply about the outcome of this debate at a policy level, and I truly want to convince the person on the other side of the debate, or at least open their mind.

When I'm at my best, I listen carefully to their arguments, and try to genuinely communicate that I"m listening and try to genuinely understand their point. That's the only way to build common ground between positions. Then I try to give my position as carefully as possible, without embellishing or exaggerating my argument just for rhetorical effect. This means that they hear the minimal core of my argument, which I hope is as convincing as possible. For example, in a religious debate I might talk about historical Jesus rather than telling someone it's important they believe in every miracle Jesus worked, today.  This is sometimes a bad idea, since some arguments are only convincing when presented in their strongest form, but it's the only way I want to live. I'm happy with incremental change because I'm aware I could be wrong.

When I'm at my worst, though, I embellish. I use rhetoric. I raise my voice, and I subtly cast aspersions on people's characters to make them think it's obvious that my side is correct. I almost do this as a reflex, and sometimes I"m barely aware that I'm doing it. I often don't realize that my tone of voice is implying that what I'm saying is obvious. And worst of all, I make leaps of logic to try to keep my argument together.

The problem is that against a poor debater, or someone not really interested in debate, this often works. They'll agree with me out of general respect for me, or because of the pressure to conform, or just pretend to agree to end the argument. And I go off feeling like I've done something worthwhile.

But there are two huge problems with this approach. One, it means I'm "educating" people with bad arguments. If a skilled debater argues with them and they bring up the same (invalid) points, they'll get shot down and feel stupid. They'll probably end up less convinced of what I wanted in the first place! Two, when I'm against a skilled debater, they'll lose respect for me and my ideas because they'll recognize I'm not arguing in good faith.

So, I'm going to try to change. Premise one: I believe in the ideas I'm arguing for. Premise two: if I'm wrong, I want to learn that and change my mind. So the best conclusion I see is that I become more disciplined about presenting only the strong core of my argument. My mission should be to find common ground with opposing debaters so we can drill down to premises, axioms, studies, and morals. Once we're there, we can really start to open each others' minds and hopefully advance the cause of truth just a little bit.

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