The Great Debate About... Great Debates
Blog Post by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
[Other] Posted on December 30, 2016 / Last Updated on December 31, 2016
If you've spent a fair deal of time around the Internet, chances are you've gotten into the occasional online discussion. And if you've gotten into the occasional online discussion, chances are you've gotten into the occasional online… debate. Welcome to the club, my friend. Debating topics which interest us is what the Internet is made for. (I mean, apart from all that porn and stuff.) It can be engaging, challenging, and surprisingly fun to discuss our views with someone who opposes us, and maybe – just maybe! – convince them to see things our way.
Over the years since I first became acquainted with the online world – and particularly since becoming a writer for Critically Touched – I've become highly interested in the art of debate. There are so many topics worth discussing, and so many different opinions about each. You'd be surprised at how much you can learn about a person based on how they feel about Star Trek IV, or the film adaptations of Harry Potter, or the series finale of Lost. Heck, some of us have even gotten into debates that don't involve pop culture! (Perish the thought, I know.)
Yes, everyone loves a good debate. Yet… the more time I spend around the Interwebs, the more I come across debates that are – well, anything but "good." More often than not, these arguments seem fractured, petty, and at times downright hostile. What's the deal?
A theory has been circulating in recent years that the Internet is killing the art of debate. The rise of social media has reduced all arguments to a mere 140 characters, and ruined any chances of deep communication. People just aren't willing to engage in intelligent discussion anymore.
Can this be true? Has the Internet ruined our powers of reason and persuasiveness? Or is there something else at work here?
For anyone who enjoys good-spirited discussions, this is a complicated issue, and one that bears further scrutiny. So scrutinize it we shall. Specifically, I want to draw attention not to the world of online debate, but of debate itself.
As I alluded to above, there are a few different levels on which we can engage others in argument. Let's approach them one by one.
Level 1: Established Facts
Factual debate is the easiest form of argumentation to describe and discuss. It is also the least common, especially on the Internet. But it's worth bringing up all the same.
To explain the general idea of factual debate, I offer a hypothetical example: Tracy and Lacey get into an argument over the classic stop-motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tracy claims that Tim Burton directed the film (the official title is Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, he reasons), while Lacey believes he was only a producer. After a few moments of argument, Tracy hops onto IMDB, intent on proving his point, and discovers that the film's director is… Henry Selick. Sheepishly, he admits he was wrong. He gives Lacey a quarter, assuming these two are the gambling type. End of debate.
Simple, right? Factual debate is just what it sounds like – an argument over something which is an established fact that (at least) one of the two parties involved is not familiar with. These disputes can usually be resolved with a simple Google search, since the matter at hand has already been established elsewhere. Because there's no personal opinion attached to cold, hard facts, one side will definitively be proven wrong.
There are, however, pitfalls. For one thing, there are many scientific debates in the world that remain unsettled, even to this day. Physicists still debate over precisely how a bicycle manages to ride down a street without tipping over, and astronomists have spent decades debating the qualifications to classify a celestial body as a planet. There are also historical debates that continue without resolution. (Seriously, whatever happened to that Earhart lady?)
The good news is that debates like these do have concrete answers – we just haven't yet learned them. I call this "good" because a factual debate, even one over an unsolved problem, must feature factual levels of evidence in order to seem credible. And given that all the factual information we have about unsolved mysteries has not, you know, solved them, debates like that tend to diffuse pretty quickly.
But this brings me to another pitfall of factual debate: Formulated solutions. And these you've definitely seen on the Internet – usually in the form of conspiracy theories. Some YouTube commenter going off on a rant about how John F. Kennedy was killed by Chef Boyardee, or how the government is planting hypnotic drugs in our kids' apple juice. Thankfully, most of us have the intelligence not to believe this nonsense, but it's best not to even engage those sort of folks in the first place. (The famed philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed that if one starts an argument with a falsehood, they can reach any falsehood as their conclusion. He then went on to prove he was the Pope. True story.) You can bet that the guy who thinks FDR was responsible for Pearl Harbor is too far 'round the bend to be swayed by your insistent arguments otherwise, so you're better off ignoring that argument entirely.
Unfortunately, the Internet Age we now live in has made it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Hundreds of news outlets are scattered across the Web, and while some are generally prestigious and reliable, many media sites don't bother with silly little things like "research" and instead just focus on making their headlines as SHOCKING as possible. And it's not even the online tabloids. Publications as widely renowned as the New York Times and the Washington Post have often made mistakes in their quest to print truth in journalism.
That's why it's important not to take everything you read at face value, unless the people delivering the information have a surefire way of backing it up. Remember, there was a time when people thought the Earth was flat, and that said flat Earth was the center of the universe. You just never know when the "facts" can be proven definitively wrong.
Level 2: Pop Culture
Yeah, you probably don't need much of an explanation with this one. You debate pop culture, I debate pop culture – as I alluded to earlier, it's what much of the Internet is built on. DC Comics vs. Marvel. Star Wars vs. Star Trek. The Sopranos vs. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (What, you've never gotten into that one? It's more complex than you might think.)
We all have our favorite shows, or movies, or books, or songs. No two people have the exact same tastes, unless you count robotic duplicates or the Coen Brothers. Yet the Internet is full of debates sparked by differing tastes – favorite films, favorite TV episodes, favorite characters, you name it. Why do we spend so much time arguing over what ultimately amounts to mere entertainment?
A few reasons spring to mind, none of which are apt to strike you as especially shocking. First and foremost, debating pop culture is fun! We enjoy watching TV and movies, and we enjoy discussing them afterwards, eager to vocalize the impressions they made on us. As I've mentioned a time or two in the past, the best of pop culture is designed not merely to occupy our spare time, but to present us with interesting and challenging themes that make us view the wide world around us in different ways.
This brings me to the next reason: A good show or film can resonate within us, captivating us emotionally as well as intellectually. (How many of us have cheered at watching a fictional hero's victory, or cried when a beloved TV character is killed off?) Pop culture is designed to emulate real life, and oftentimes, we can take our favorite shows pretty personally. So when someone else flexes their fingers over the keyboard and starts complaining about how awful Buffy and Spike are as a couple, we feel compelled to defend them. (And you do defend them, right? SPUFFY 4EVAH!)
But to that end, we must ask: What are we attempting to accomplish? Are we trying to swing the other person's opinion? Or merely reinforce our own?
By its very definition, "debate" implies two opposing sides. And the world we've grown up in has a fierce winner/loser mentality. So many of us enter these pop-culture debates firmly on one side of the border, and certain enough that our cases, if properly articulated, can sway the opposition.
The flaw in this plan should be obvious: The fellow on the other side generally believes just as strongly in his or her opinion as we do in ours, and they'll be trying as hard as we are to sway us. There's no easy way to definitively win an argument like this, particularly if both sides are set in their opinions before entering the ring.
Case in point: Comic-book fans have spent the last thirty years pondering a single, multifaceted question: If Batman and Superman got into a fight, who would win? Several battles between DC's two flagship heroes have been waged over the last few decades, yet the online arguments have consistently endured. In fact, not long ago, an entire big-budget film was released, centering on the proposed battle of Batman v. Superman – and the film, which reached more eyeballs than any individual comic book set around the subject, seemed to provide a definitive answer. But were people convinced? Nope. If anything, the two sides grew even more dead-set in their beliefs following Batman v Superman. Zack Snyder, after all, will not be the final word the DC Universe!
This is the underlying difficulty of using debate as a tool of "convincing" others. If those others already have their minds made up, you'll have your work cut out for you in trying to change it. And again, this works both ways: We've all gotten into arguments at some point in which we already have our minds set going in. A guy can write a 20,000-word essay and call it "The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of the END," in which he analyzes every moment of every shot in that show's infamous final scene, but if you've already drawn your own opposing conclusions, you'll meet every one of his arguments with a counterargument of your own – even if some of those counterarguments will probably just consist of "Oh, he's just speculating."
A large chunk of pop-cultural debate, in fact, boils down to speculation. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Two online denizens get into an argument over a certain story development on their favorite show. One of them finds the development stupid, and sees it as proof that the writers have lost their way. The other argues that the development is in fact brilliant, and proceeds to give a detailed explanation in which he repeatedly uses words like "subtext" and "metaphor."
On the one hand, debates like that open a whole new set of floodgates, and bring up questions of authorial intent and the issue of explaining away story problems through unofficial reasoning (or, as it's known in some ruder circles, "fanwanking"). Philosophical debates rely on individual fan response even more so than Show vs. Show arguments, because both sides are arguing about how they each reacted to one single thing.
Yet at the same time, these types of pop-culture debates can be the most beneficial. Because they tend to involve subtextual discussion, they may lead to some fairly intellectual debate (provided the topic at hand is not "How good was Game of Thrones' latest nude scene?"), and because they reflect directly off the impressions of the fans, they may come to a greater understanding and appreciation of one another's opinions – even if they don't end up agreeing with them.
And that segues us into the third reason why debating popular culture can be so invigorating: It allows us to gain an understanding of other people without sitting them down in a recliner and showing them a series of inkblots. Convincing another of your opinion can be difficult, so at the least, you can try to engage him of her as a fellow person. Articulate your opinions well enough, and politely enough, and you both may come away having learned a little bit about opinions that diverge from your own.
But thus far, we've limited opinionated debate to the worlds of fiction and fantasy. Therefore, I must ask: Does it work as easily in that big, scary thing we call… the real world?
Level 3: That Big, Scary Thing We Call the Real World
Thousands of real-world debates occur every day – some on the Internet, and some in, you know, the real world – and it seems like everyone has an opinion they want to express. That only makes sense; we've been living on this quirky blue marble all our lives, so naturally, we want to deliberate on the issues that occur here every day. And with so much of this world being fueled by politics, you can bet that there will be a lot of disagreements, and subsequently, a lot of debate.
But again, I posit the question: Do these debates really accomplish anything? Is arguing with someone who opposes you on the latest hot-button issue likely to sway their opinion towards yours?
It's a tricky proposition, particularly in situations when the world draws definitive lines. Here in America, for example, we have two major political parties, and two defining sets of beliefs. Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. conservatives. The whole shebang sounds like it was made for people to debate each other, all the livelong day.
And indeed, the Framers designed it that way – two opposing parties duke it out for a while, and eventually reach a conclusion that satisfies as many people on both sides as possible. It sounds good in theory – but does it work in practice?
Let me try speaking from experience. As someone who falls somewhere on the middle of the political spectrum – liberal on some issues, conservative on others – I've gotten into my fair share of arguments with people on both sides of the fence. Most of these arguments have been friendly, but not many of them seem to sway the other person over to my side on any single issue. The standard response is "Let's agree to disagree." (A sentence, incidentally, that grows more paradoxical every time I hear it. How can you agree if you're disagreeing? My poor head…)
In observing others, I've discovered that I'm not alone in the "agree to disagree" boat. Yet despite all these closure-free arguments, political debates continue to thrive. In fact, every time we prepare to elect a new President, what do we do? We pit the two major nominees against one another, and have them debate the many issues of the day.
Have you ever watched any of these Presidential debates? Does one candidate ever respond to the other's points about national economics with "Gosh, you're absolutely right… you've convinced me to change my mind"? Of course not! Each candidate has their own platform, and admitting that their opponent has proven them wrong would just make them look weak and befuddled.
So why even bother with these Presidential debates? The answer everyone gives is: To try swaying the undecided voters. The key word being "undecided." Candidates don't even bother trying to sway the opinions of their opponent's most ardent supporters, so they need to scrounge up as many votes as they can from those who haven't yet made up their minds.
It's as I mentioned earlier – if someone has already made up their mind, you won't be able to do much to change it. And in some cases, depending on your opponent's attachment to the issue at hand, changing their minds may be impossible.
An argument about supply-side tax cuts (if delivered properly and eloquently enough) may get the other side to see things your way, since the issue isn't directly correlated to most people's personal ideals, and there are many statistical resources worth utilizing. How about gun control? Well, there are vehement arguments made about that issue on both sides, but certain circumstances can and have swayed people's opinions. What about climate change? Um… you're essentially arguing about the weather in a world where most people can't even agree if the month of March is "jacket temperature," but I guess it can be done. How about capital punishment? Or gay marriage? Or sex negativity? Or abortion? At a certain point, we're not just arguing against other people's opinions – we're arguing against their basic world beliefs.
And at the same time, they're arguing against ours. Just as we're convinced that the other side is thoroughly, indisputably wrong, they're convinced of that about us as well. In fact, here's a scenario that occurred to me several times during our most recent Presidential election: I would hear a friend talk about how dreadful one of the two candidates was, and that anyone voting for that candidate was a horrible person. Not long after, I would meet another friend who would say the exact same thing about the other candidate! Are there any circumstances under which these two fellows could see eye-to-eye? (Heck, you haven't even met either of them, and I'm willing to bet you hate one of them already.)
And this is where the phrase "confirmation bias" comes in. Due to our fervent personal beliefs, we have a tendency to seek out and support new evidence that supports our views, and hastily discard information that rejects them. If we come across a study with conclusions that line up with our beliefs – or even conclusions that are simply ambiguous – we usually accept them as "proof" that we're on the right track. Conversely, if we come across a study that claims our views are incorrect, it doesn't matter how much work or research that study may have entailed – we'll simply convince ourselves that the writer is wrong, the study is flawed, the research group is biased… anything to keep us from questioning the things we know to be true.
And here's the scary part: Most of the time, we don't even realize we're doing this. We like to think of ourselves as rational folks, capable of listening to others and keeping an open mind. And a lot of the time, we are! But when it comes to our base beliefs, there are very real limits to just how much our minds are willing to rationalize in regards to opposing views before we begin searching for something, anything, to convince us that the other party doesn't know what they're talking about. So our minds quickly excuse that information by convincing us of its untrustworthiness.
As I mentioned earlier in this essay, factual information has become more difficult to discern in the Internet Age, when any schnook with a Web connection can dictate information to the world at large. Part of the reason why false information has become so prevalent in online news outlets recently is that people are so willing to believe that information. If we read something on an even vaguely credible news page, our minds automatically want to believe it. Pretty soon, false articles get quoted, and tweeted, and before long, a good chunk of the Internet has established some completely falsified information as established "fact."
And false information is perhaps the most dangerous component of any political debate. When discussing a particularly sensitive topic, each side is looking for any way in which they can prove the others' claims as fraudulent. Bringing up false information – and having that false information promptly disproven – essentially shoots the entire debate in the foot. One side is now convinced that all her opponent's claims are built on lies, while the other, as usual, just discards the false information as "a simple journalistic mistake" and searches for a different tack. The art of political argument here reveals its most glaring flaws – when two sides thoroughly refuse to reconcile, no good can result.
If you're still not convinced, allow me to use the most extreme example: Religion. Yes, religion, or lack thereof, isn't just a component of our basic beliefs: it's the very crux of our beliefs themselves. It represents "faith" and "values," two buzzwords which – even standing on their own – are able to provoke disagreement. The idea of a Christian and a Jew getting into a serious, conclusive argument over whose religion is the "correct" one seems so unthinkable that it's been twisted into a source of humor. (I'm referring, of course, to those popular "priest, minister, and rabbi" jokes.) And once you start factoring the more divergent religions into the equation, not to mention atheism: forget it. You'll have a better chance convincing your opponent that some fat red-suited guy is trying to break into his chimney.
Political debates can be challenging – but they cannot be decisively "won" or "lost." At best, they can lead to an "agreement of disagreement"… which is essentially where they began.
Are There Any Solutions?
At the beginning of this article (which, holy cow, already seems like a decade ago), I alluded to the theory that the Internet has killed the art of debate. Like I said, I don't believe this theory to be entirely true. And yet… well, the Internet certainly hasn't helped.
Here's the problem: In a face-to-face debate, it's very easy to establish yourself as calm and collected, and to extol an air of confidence and reason in your arguments. But over the Internet, much of that is lost. No facial expressions, no vocal inflections, no emphatic gestures to make you look as professional as a college professor. All you have are words. And yes, the words can be boldened or underlined or italicized or ALL-CAPPED, but at the end of the day, the strength of your arguments rely on your ability to properly string together a coherent sentence.
And in the age of social media, even that has become a daunting task. Too many online arguments are cut off at 140 characters, not to mention drowned out in hashtags and pull-quotes and tasteless memes. Even the best of political points can be lost in the combative shuffle.
So, you may be wondering: What can we do? How do we make our voices heard without driving away – or worse, angering – the opposition?
Indeed, solutions are not easy. But remember what I said at the start of the pop-culture section? No two people have the exact same tastes. That's true for television, and film, and books… and yes, even politics.
Even in each individual political party, there are factions of disagreement. Think about it – you probably have at least one friend whose political beliefs are largely parallel to your own, but who disagrees with you on one or two little issues. Good! A little disagreement can actually be healthy here.
Spread out a bit, and you'll probably find others in your immediate political circle who have a few dissenting opinions, even if they align themselves with your own party. For most intents and purposes, are you still able to connect with them? I should hope so. Our minds, thankfully, are wired to more than just the political world.
Now, how about the folks from the opposite political party who are able to agree with a handful of your views? You can at least find some level upon which to connect with them. Heck, odds are you'll find more than one. And once you've established that easy connection, you can segue into discussing more complicated issues.
Our use of political "labels" has conditioned us to believe that there are only two basic mindsets in this world… but start looking around and you'll discover plenty of people who aren't firmly committed to either camp. And some of these people are quite recognizable. Kirsten Powers, the pro-life Christian news pundit? She's a Democrat. Marc Cherry, the openly gay writer with incredible success in Hollywood? He's a Republican. There are too many facets and layers in the world of politics for most people to fully conform to either party.
And even more importantly, it's all about how you approach them. As I wrote about a few years ago, voicing unpopular opinions can be difficult, but there are ways to make your voice heard cleanly and coherently.
It all starts with your approach. If you put your political motivations above the need to be friendly and courteous, you may think you're coming off as bold and strong-willed, but you're simply shutting out anyone with opposing views from listening to you. Furthermore, if you enter a political discussion with no intention of digesting the points of the opposition, chances are they won't be willing to listen to your points, either, and the entire "debate" will frustratingly lead nowhere. But if you enter with a willingness to connect and understand – even if you might not agree – you each may actually leave with a bit more respect for the other.
As always, there are ways in which these tactics can backfire – particularly in the context of faceless, social media-driven online debate. Sites like Twitter provide us with a means to let the world hear our voices, but people too often exploit its usage for anger and sarcasm. And the latter of those tactics may be the worst debate-killer of all – if we start ridiculing others' opinions for the sake of a laugh, we're only encouraging more anger and more antagonism.
But even in the most chaotic of times, in the most ludicrous of situations, we have a means of persevering: through a little something called "common sense."
Even on the Internet, you can usually tell when someone is interested in having a legitimate discussion, when they just want to state the same points over and over again, and when they're just being a troll. All it takes is a willingness to reason – to respect those who take the time to earn it, and to ignore those who simply wish to fan the flames.
As I said, solutions are not easy. Especially in a world so politically divisive, there are certain problems that do not have truly "definitive" solutions, much as some of us would like to hope otherwise.
But even as we promote the things we believe in, it's important that we consider the art of debate, and remind ourselves of why it is such a powerful tool. Not for the way it allows for fights and arguments and dissention, but for the way it allows us to talk with people who would seem to be our enemies – and maybe, just maybe, to understand them.
Stay well. Stay civil. I'll see you in 2017.
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