Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Debating the art of civilised discourse

Depressingly, we aren’t seeing much civilised discourse in public these days. The media  are supposed to be fair, accurate and balanced, but  they  chase scandals and pander to publicity seekers.   Political interviews and ‘debates’ consist of  explanation-free dogma and personal criticism. Polarisation is the name of the game. If you agree with what’s being said – great, your worldview has been endorsed. If not, the other guy’s an idiot, and it’s fair cop to pour all the invective, bad language and personal insult you can come up with on them.  The formula goes something like this:

  • I’m very intelligent and I believe X.
  • This other person believes not-X.
  • Therefore this other person is a moron and should be trodden on.

Rational argument remains unexplored territory, and will do as long as we’re attached to the belief that  our views are the right views.  When you believe something passionately it can be hard to accept that other people disagree. Attachment, passion, vigour, all these are great qualities. The challenge is to realise that others, who are not morons, feel as strongly as we do, but on the opposite side of the issue.  The inability to do this is at the core of all conflicts, great and small.

I can’t bring peace to the middle east but I can help develop the young minds of people who one day might. I believe passionately  in the importance of learning to debate  at school. There’s no better way of learning to think on your feet and to express yourself purposefully. Debating promotes critical thinking,  and enquiry. It builds confidence and the ability to persuade, and it helps young people discover their voice and engage with wider issues. Many a high functioning adult can recall a school debate when a light went on and they realised things are complicated because there are other perspectives. It’s also a shortcut to some major life lessons:  teamwork matters,  others get what you want, losing gracefully is hard.

What debaters learn (and forgive me if this sounds quaint) is the art of civilised discourse.  The beauty of debating at school is that you take sides in an argument at random. You don’t get to choose which propositions you support or oppose. To prepare for this you must read stuff you’d rather shun, listen to views you dislike, walk in another person’s badly made shoes, and argue a case you personally oppose. You cannot win by assertion, you must be able to explain and justify. It’s a brilliant way to understand ‘the other’ and to learn there are all sorts of shades of ‘right’.

Debating makes you confront your  inner partisan.  It’s testing, and not just for the debaters.  As one adjudicator once said “I can only  ever take half the room with me when I deliver a result”, and I’ve learned from experience that  this is right. I can’t make an unbiased judgement if it’s an idea I care about presented by someone I care for.

We live in a first world democracy, shaped by the great oral traditions of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Enlightenment, right on down to the Mechanics Institutes which offered self help to ‘the working man’ last century. All are grounded in the belief that rational argument, questions and discussion - not the brutish exchange of insults or fists,  improve the individual, and that  individual then improves society.

We should debate important issues, vigorously and often. Because we can.

This post comes at the end of the school debating season. Congratulations to all the debaters of 2012. You’ve done well.

Dinner time discussion

Dinner is a great opportunity for families to talk about issues.  Good conversation nourishes the brain,  as good food nourishes the body!

  • Conversation cues
  • What do you and your friends disagree about?  Do you all think the same way, or does your friendship group have differences  of opinion?
  • Have you ever had  to  ‘agree to disagree’ with someone?
  • How do you hear about what’s happening in the world?
  • Whose opinions do you trust?
  • Have you noticed whose views make the news?  What about the views that don’t?
  • Comedies like The Daily Show,  The Colbert Report and The Chaser are seen by some as a better source of news than the real news media are. Why would this be?
  • Is it ever alright to make fun of people?

Some of these ideas came from The Art Of Manliness: ‘How to debate politics like a gentleman‘.

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This entry was posted on 03/09/2012 by in Confidence for Speakers, Debates, Public speaking and tagged .

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