The debates don’t work, they just make it worse.

“If it is true that insofar as there is a general consciousness it consists of the interplay of a disorderly crowd of not wholly commensurable visions, then the vitality of that consciousness depends on creating the conditions under which such interplay will occur. And for that, the first step is surely to accept the depth of those differences”

Clifford Geertz

When we talk about dialogue as a process, a lot of time is spent being sure people understand not just what it is but what it isn’t. Sadly, much of our formal conversations are actually facilitated in ways which encourage what it isn’t. Rather than helping promote listening and constructive engagement, they favour and bolster both a counter dialogic approach and counter dialogic people. Formal cultures for communicating disagreement can be seen to be failing us everywhere we look, from day time talk shows, to political parties to Prime Minister’s questions. But one very significant format – that has a pernicious influence on so many other forums in our everyday conversations and our political process – is the “debate”.

There are interesting discussions to be found in debates, and some valuable processes. But more than other spaces such as panel discussions and conference plenaries, which might also limit quality dialogue, debates can actively encourage a form of conversation that works negatively – and they form the basis for much of the way we converse generally. Here are a few reasons that it feels to me debates are so problematic.     

1. Debates weigh performance over truth

At one point on my MA on migration a few years back, I reluctantly took part in a debate on open borders. It took the standard format – posing a motion, putting forward an opening statement, arguing the case for and against via rebuttals and so forth. In this case we were in teams but with long periods of in group discussion between the open battle stages. At the end of these processes, in theory, everyone leaves with a clear decision that, depending on which side was felt to be the “winner”, means “this house/ group believes/ rejects…” and whatever the original broad based proposal was.

Crucially, we didn’t choose our teams for the discussion and I was placed in the group opposed to the motion – something along the lines of “all borders should be opened tomorrow”. At the time I was fairly strongly pro, so found myself busy constructing arguments I didn’t necessarily agree with. Despite my idea of simply sitting out the discussion – I’ve got no stomach for the formality and showmanship of such events – I ended up being nominated to make our opening statement. As a dialogue person I value the space to have quiet, patient conversations where beliefs and values I hold can be articulated with caution and care. I can find it challenging to articulate the complexity and nuances of my actual opinions, and I’m prone to getting tongue tied, repetitive or just nervous of saying something that reflects on myself and my beliefs in a misleading fashion. On the other hand, as a closet thespian, I often enjoy the freedom to act as the devil’s advocate.

As such, though nervous, I found myself enjoying the speech making, improvising a few rebuttals to their opening gambit, cheekily mocking their utopian vision and playing the rational realist patronisingly dragging the conversation back down to earth. It was fun. As we went on I started getting more and more bold and clear cut while making my points. The healthy personal doubt that I hope steers me a away from arrogance was caste aside, and it felt liberating to find I could express myself with such clarity and effectiveness. We won the debate because we sounded good, and confident, and clear – but of course I didn’t really believe half of what I was saying.

And this is the thing with debates – they are a form of sport and performance. A skill that can be nurtured and bred and in which brash certainties always outperform the ambiguous and open minded.

2. Effective debating is taught/ successful policy is too often won through debates: 

We never had debates at my school in Bristol, despite it being a former grammar which managed to maintain Classics and Latin on the curriculum. But at the private and public schools across the country you will find debating societies priming their students for political life. And that is because the tradition continues into political life. Parliament is theatre too – especially PMQs. That’s why Cameron was so comfortable when performing that duty. It’s not just the architecture that makes a public school boy feel at home, it’s the whole process. Traditionally the trade union movement provided its own firebrand class warriors who could do battle in such arenas. The real, deep seated divisions of the past are not present in parliament today, and it all looks so affected when the performance is generated not from passion but from format and tradition. But performance can get you far more points than the genuine value of the argument. One reason Corbyn’s questions from real, actual people seem so out of place, and Hilary Benn’s pro Syrian intervention speech was so beautifully stirring, yet broken down, really didn’t say very much.

All these speeches and grillings are essentially shaped by debate culture, but the nature of all campaigns feel shaped by them. One arguable consequence of all this is a Brexit campaign run by a public school performer who, like me arguing against open borders, didn’t really believe in his own arguments. For further exposition of this and the disastrous results of public school/ Oxbridge debate culture I highly recommend reading this excellent piece by Simon Kuper . 

3. Debates encourage those who prefer battle over progressive change

For me dialogue, contrary to an easy assumption, is not all about talk over action. It’s about creating a space where genuine transformations can take place. It also provides a foundation of good relations by which people can work with and manage disagreements whilst moving forward on shared challenges – messy, difficult and imperfect but driven by positive intentions to keep trying. This is hard to pit against the performance of arguments and disagreements favoured in debates which can not only encourage an antagonistic and less sincere approach, but can become sport for sport’s sake.

There are lot’s of things, major things, to be angry about, but the incorrigible number of divisions and opinions expressed in modern life demands a different kind of conversation. With debate styles hitting the new communication channels of social media we are in danger of drowning in a sea of polarisations. You may feel exasperated by it but you may also enjoy the state of impasse – so long as you feel you are ‘winning’. Some people are skilled at the riposte and keenly assured in their range of responses and the merits of their arguments. They can make their living being good at it, and as such would be unlikely to want to change their minds or move away from the process of battle that feeds their skill set. There are high profile speakers turned social media personalities who get high on the ‘ding dong’ of debate as sport. It seems to me, in their quest for conflict over progress, they become viruses that, like internet ‘trolls’, can sabotage conversations and the people that believe they are engaging with any purpose beyond the battle itself. Such “professional provocateurs” want only to win, to outsmart, to please their followers but not resolve or even really address any issue. We all end up trapped in their preferred zone of outrage and counter punches that only leads us around in circles.

(If you haven’t read it already, Laurie Penny brilliantly exposes this strain in her article on hanging with self confessed provocateur Milo Yiannopolous here Note in particular the request made to organise an on-line ruckus just for the publicity).   

We can all be infected by the pleasure of doing battle to some degree so there is no clear way to weed out the trolls. However, if we change the terms of the conversation we can make it one in which it is impossible, or at least difficult for them to operate, encouraging instead those seeing a discussion as more than an end in itself. Those of us in this group can then avoid being snared into dead end arguments. Currently, they infect panel discussions, on line forums and, sadly, much of our political process. To make them in any way transformative,the nature of the spaces they excel in needs addressing. 

4. If the prerogative is to be on the winning side, and you decide who wins, you can never lose.  

Another major problem with the sport of debates is the idea that through teams, one side can actually come out on top. For example, election debates between the party leaders end with furious discussion about who ‘won’. Given subjectivity is cranked up to the max, this whole notion seems both ridiculous and pointless. The winner is whoever you felt, but also wanted to win.

I compare it to going to a football match but one that has done away with goals. Instead the two teams attempt to keep possession and display their skills as best they can. At the end of the 90 minutes we get to decide on who the winning team is. Even as a neutral your response has to be subjective to some degree. Besides, on what basis do you judge it – Style? Possession? Speed? But if you turn up, as many do to debates, as a partisan supporter, the outcome is more obvious. I can’t see Bristol Rovers ever losing another home game. No one wants to lose. We clearly beat Arsenal 3- 0 and are through to the quarter finals.

In one of a few atheist versus religion debates I’ve watched on Youtube (guilty pleasure), I saw two religious representatives get angry, use confused arguments and contradict themselves multiple times against a calm, clear, respectful atheist team (my impression). For me they (the atheists) won the argument hands down – there was no question. At the end of the debate the camera pans to the audience at what is an event run by an Islamic organisation. As they had throughout, the crowd clap and smile fully content that their beliefs have been vindicated by their winning side. In the comments below Youtube punters furiously debate the debate, incredulous that anyone could think the ‘other’ team won. And so in debates we’re all winners, except of course – nobody is.

Can we change anything?

Better dialogue can allow for uncertain but more sincere voices to be heard, and disruptive, uncompromising and closed ones to find less room for manoeuvre. Instead we create endless spaces for dialogic dead ends. If we want to have a more inclusive, productive, constructive dialogue, the whole way we exchange differences has to change. If we listen only to find a means of defence and counter attack, can we really claim to be listening with any genuine intent to understand? I’m not sure how we can move away from debate and debate influenced formats, but questioning the process during the process, (as Corbyn arguably has with PMQs), might be a start. Generally, we need make the argument that if we take away the idea we have anything to lose – we have much to gain. There is a need to not just create new conversational spaces but to question and re-shape the existing ones.


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