Monday, April 16, 2007

Winning Debates

Thers linked to a funny quote from a National Review piece on Saturday, this one:

I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy but, increasingly, the next guy doesn't want to argue — he wants to demonize me. He doesn't want to win the debate; he wants to shut it down.

Whether the topic is global warming or Saddam Hussein's links to terrorists, daring to contradict the "consensus" brings hoots and hollers and worse.

What makes the quote funny, of course, is that the writer wants other debaters to take seriously such positions as "Hussein was behind the 911 massacres" or "there is no human cause for global warming", and Thers discusses that most admirably. All I want to add to what he said is that we get into the la-la land if one of the debating rules is that evidence doesn't count at all.

And this is far too often one of the hidden debating rules. I have had a thousand rounds of these debates in cyberspace; "rounds", because the argument always returns to its initial form, never mind what evidence has been presented in the middle. I used to find this incredibly exasperating and struggled to find better ways of discussing the evidence. Until I realized that this game of debating has nothing to do with the evidence: it is all about winning. So if it looks like I'm "winning" on the basis of the evidence, the argument shifts to a slightly different form, and then I have to defend against that with new evidence, and so on, until we suddenly are back in the starting positions. That way the other person didn't "lose".

And now for the real point of this post: Imagine a debate on how yummy broccoli is. We set up the two sides: Here, in the right corner, wearing green and green, stands Ms. Broccoli, with the slogan "Broccoli - Better Than Orgasms". And here, in the left corner, wearing vomit and vomit, stands Mr. Cheetos, with the slogan "Broccoli -Worse Than Death." Now let the match begin!

So Ms. Broccoli and Mr. Cheetos box and then the referee decides who won the match. Broccoli is either the most delicious food ever or worse than rat poison. The end of the story. This is how many political debates go. Nothing about shades of gray, nothing about complicated positions on complicated topics, and nothing about the possibility that neither Ms. Broccoli nor Mr. Cheetos had it right. It's all about winning.