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Suggested Related Essay:
"Liberal & Conservative"

Two sides?

– the flaws of debate

June 2004

Are there two sides to every story?  A pro and a con?  This is a common but damaging simplification that can destroy the capacity for complex thought.
There's an insidious mindset in the American – and perhaps in the world's – notion of public debate and discussion;  it is well illustrated by the debating rules and techniques taught to thousands of young students who participate in formal "debate" in American high schools and colleges.  Its dark side shows itself in our court rooms, where hardly any of the participants are actually interested in discovering the truth.

I speak of the notion, ingrained in the "liberal" American tradition, embodied in the old saw that "there are two sides to every story."  Few notions have had a more negative impact on public discussion.

In their "debate" classes, clubs, and teams, our teenagers are introduced to the ancient techniques of debate and oratory.  They learn that there are two sides to every issue:  Pro & Con.  They learn that they are expected to speak for one of these sides  – and that it's immaterial which –  and that the purpose of their rhetoric is to convince the listeners of the rightness of their position.  They learn to listen to the opponent for one reason:  to shoot holes in his arguments and continue unaffected in their unalterable position.  In other words, they learn salesmanship, and this training will equip them well to be salesmen, politicians, evangelists, carnival hawkers, or trial lawyers.  These professions are really the same profession in varying garb, differing chiefly in the product being hawked, and they are indeed populated by folks who have learned the art of convincing listeners, by glib oratory, that they are right.

What our kids fail to learn in school is that there are not two sides to every story.  There are many sides to every story.  The polarizing oversimplification of two sides, of right and wrong, often remains embedded in the consciousness well into adulthood, and affects both personality and political decisions.  They have learned to believe that they are right, and that those who disagree with them are wrong, and that their error must be exposed, just like on the debating team.  But this is a silly and dangerous notion.  What if I'm not right?  Then my effort to convince folks of the error of the other party is directly damaging.  Wouldn't it be more useful for me to listen carefully to the other speaker, evaluate objectively what is said, and rethink my position in light of what I've learned?  The purpose of meaningful discussion among adults is not to convince others that one is right, but to arrive at the best course of action;  this is achieved not by headbutting "debate", but by mutual understanding, exploration, and adaptation where necessary.  Where is the "debate" club or team that teaches those techniques?

The "debating team" kind of skill – using rhetorical and oratorical techniques to convince listeners that what you say is true, regardless of whether it is, regardless even of whether the speaker believes it to be true – has shown itself to be useful with uncritical audiences, such as one may address in court rooms, revival meetings, and political rallies.  There are great profits to be collected from being adept at amazing and confusing the simpleminded, and for this purpose practice in debating techniques is priceless.  But to bring honest contributions to discussions of real issues, to actually move society toward solutions of its problems, requires the opposite qualities from those taught to the budding politicians and lawyers of the debating teams.  Unfortunately, it may be some time before our educators comprehend this.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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