Friday, January 9, 2009

The Most Important Thing I Learned from Debate

I was a debater in high school, a debater in college, and a debate coach and judge after college. I don't know any other extracurricular activity that teaches students more about more.

Debate teaches substantive material. I debated topics like space exploration, national educational reform, First Amendment case law, hazardous waste responsibility, U.S. arms sales, consumer product safety, and foreign trade policy. I had to learn about all these topics as well as implications flowing from them, ranging from policy issues like government spending and federalism and military strategy to the philosophies and deontological constructs of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls and Thomas Malthus.

Debate also, as you would expect, teaches public speaking skills. I do not contend that the uninitiated wants to listen to a debate per se - the speed of the speeches and the technical jargon used in the "game" of debate will confuse most first timers. But the skills learned - clarity, explanation, confidence, organization - are transferable to many other public speaking opportunities that audiences will enjoy hearing.

More important, to me, than either of these first two benefits is that debate teaches how to think on one's feet. The number of unexpected twists and turns in any given debate round are multiple, and the debater who best understands and reacts to the unforeseen will win.

But there is something more basic than any of those things, and it is that something that came home to me again today. Debate reinforces - if it does not teach for the first time - that there are at least two reasonable sides to virtually every topic. One does not spend long in competitive debate and retain the idea that there are many absolutes that face us in daily life. Note: I do not at all mean that there are not certain moral, religious, and scientific absolutes - there clearly are - but I do mean to say that quantitatively the number of absolutes is relatively few compared to the number of subjects with which we deal - personally, professionally, ethically, politically - on a daily basis.

I had lunch today with one of the ministers from my church. Our purpose was to discuss a question on which we disagree. We both value discussion, and rather than simply disagreeing, we both wanted to know the reasons behind the other's position and to see what common ground we have.

Neither of us convinced the other. While my natural instincts are disappointed that I did not "win her over" with my charm and rhetoric, my debate sense tells me that what was accomplished was greater understanding - by both of us - about both sides of the matter. The truth is that we agree on most things, including many aspects of this particular concern. Our point of departure is narrow - in this case an honest disagreement in interpreting certain scripture verses - but our underlying doctrinal and ethical beliefs are virtually identical.

It is instructive to discuss. That is not news to any of you, but it is worth remembering. When we find someone whom we respect who disagrees with us about some particular issue or another, it is worthwhile to build on that respect and discover where the disagreement really lies. Maybe the key is that "whom we respect" part - maybe we need to remind ourselves that people on the other side of topics are still worthy of respect.

Just because I voted for one candidate and you voted for another does not mean that we are categorically opposed - there may be, and probably are, simply a few distinct questions on which our interpretations differ.

Today's political, religious, cultural, and economic discourse seems to be polluted by underlying suspicions of motive. We hear certain positions espoused by another - positions with which we genuinely disagree - and tend to ascribe to that other person a world view that embodies far more than the particular matter of debate. (Assumptions are largely out of place in these kinds of discussions. I like Peter Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & the Papas, but if you assume from that something about my politics, you might well be wrong.) Just because, for example, someone disagrees with me on some aspect of American foreign policy does not mean that that person and I disagree on underlying principles on which America is based. Just because you and I have a radical disagreement on whether a certain action is sin does not necessarily mean that we differ on the importance of scripture or the necessity for repentance. Just because we may disagree on whether "Abbey Road" or "Revolver" is a better album than "Born in the USA" or "Born to Run" does not mean that we don't agree on whether the Beatles are generally better than Springsteen or whether solo acts are better than quartets. (I would draw examples from rock music from the last quarter century if I actually knew any!)

As is becoming usual with my blogs, I am not plowing new ground here. I am not, I expect, saying anything profound. That there are two sides to most important questions is hardly earthshaking.

But it is worth remembering. If we can lessen a little of the suspicion of the underlying world views that may or may not give rise to the specific concern up for consideration, we might get along a little better.

And where there are honest disagreements in world view, departures in basic philosophy, and disputes over the absolutes, we must address those where appropriate. But let's not trivialize the real fundamental arguments by finding phantom ones in every specific disagreement. Let's not demonize the opposition every single time there is a dispute. Let's not assume that saying X means one's entire belief system is founded on any particular "ism". Let's not declare that those who disagree with us are unreasonable because they take a position different from ours.

Of course, some people's argumentation makes it clear that they have not thought things through. Some positions - even sincerely held ones - are not respectable (although the people espousing those beliefs are certainly worthy of respect) because they have been reached only because of fad or personal agenda or happenstance. Such an unsupportable differing opinion is equivalent to what the rhetoric scholars call a "straw man," something easily dispensed with. That is not what I am discussing here - I am talking about the positions staked out after thought, prayer, research, debate, education, experience, and honest-to-goodness conviction. Let's disagree honestly and isolate our disagreement without attributing a parade of horribles to the other.

We do not diminish the sincerity of our belief, the potential correctness of our position, or our own standing when we admit that the other side has a reasonable (albeit wrong in our opinion) position. In fact, as I learned from debate, it is often only when we see the strength of the opposing position that we best are able to debate it.

I enjoyed my lunch. I am glad for people who can disagree with me, discuss the question on the table, and still respect me. I am especially glad when they can still be my friend.

1 comment:

Charlie Johnson said...

This is simply superb, Lyn. Precisely what I love and admire about you. This wisdom is absolutely essential to our witness for Christ in the world. Idea: you should develop some Christian education materials around this essay. Check out my friend, Joe Phelps' book, "More Light, Less Heat" exploring the same valuable lesson.