Showing posts with label debating. Show all posts
Showing posts with label debating. Show all posts

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How to Fight ... Gracefully

First let me give some background.  My friend and editor of the CAA Newsletter EQUIPPED+Glen Richmond recommended that I blog about online debating in light of a rather heated, yet civil discussion that has been taking place on my Facebook page for a few days now.  And since sleep is overrated, I've decided to at least start writing about it.  If you'd like to read the full conversation check it out here, though I'm no longer following the conversation I might respond to further comments.

The first rule of fight club is probably the hardest.

#1 - Be polite!

This one is particularly tough.  People are smarter (sometimes) than you might think.  If you disguise your disdain for someone as a person, you'll probably fail.  Dawkins attempts this in his book The God Delusion with disastrous effects.  If, I'm assuming this is true, his goal in that book was to get people to rethink their beliefs in God, he completely failed because he unsuccessfully attempts to hide his disregard/disdain for that type of person.  This one is also quite difficult because it's not a common rule for discussions online.  Many a YouTube video comment stream has fallen into multiple people slinging so many insults that people who aren't even involved in the discussion are disgusted.

I tried my best to be polite throughout both the online discussion that triggered this entry and the two discussions I've had recently in real life.  As much as it might seem impossible, tolerance is certainly possible.  However, don't make the mistake of applying a modernist view of the word "tolerance."  To be polite you do not have to agree that the opposition is right and a mutually contradictory view is also right.  Tolerance doesn't mean what people think it means.  Today tolerance is used to mean, "treat all views as true."  What it really means, "treat all people respectfully, regardless of their views."  I think Ravi Zacharias, who is a model of great tolerance, has some great points about this and I suggest you listen to/read his stuff to get a sense of what it means to be tolerant.  This is important because one's view of tolerance can shape the whole debate.  If your opposing side wants you to be more tolerant and accept their view as true they need to prove that their true is correct.  Because, remember you can be tolerant without accepting their view.  When modern debaters ask for tolerance (especially from conservatives) what they're really asking for is approval.  You do not need to approve of someone's position to be tolerant, but in all this you must still maintain politeness!

#2 - Be gracious

This one is also tough.  Indeed depending on your personality this one may be more difficult than the first rule.  What do I mean by gracious though?  Well, at the risk of sounding condescending let me put it like this.  You may be an experience intellectual who has debated on national stages about your particular area of expertise (that's not me!), but your "opponent" may be a high school dropout with an axe to grind after reading some internet news article, or you both may be somewhere in between.  The point, if you don't get it already, is to be gracious to the opponent's argument(s).  Maybe they phrase the argument in an odd way, maybe they ignore too many suppressed premises.  Maybe they don't know what any of the typical terms in debates are at all.  Then again they may have taken the Coursera class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue and frame their argument intentionally ignoring certain premises.  The issue is not that you need to engage your opponent(s) and go in for the kill, the point is getting to the real arguments and dealing with them, not with your opponent's inability to frame his/her views well.

One of the best ways to be ungracious is to focus on the minutiae, e.g. grammar/spelling/punctuation among other things.  If you're unwilling or unable to look past those kinds foibles you ought not debate either in person, but particularly online.  Nothing kills your witness and credibility faster than pointing out someone's misuse of punctuation or grammar.  Sure, you may be right, and there may be times when you need to clarify something, but you need to do so graciously and be able to look through the "mistakes" and understand the real arguments and deal with them, not the grammatical mistakes.

#3 - READ!

Though the first two were probably the most difficult to do, this one is easy to do, yet incredibly important.  First, read every, single, reply.  Every, single, time.  If you don't read what your opponent has written, you're being neither gracious nor polite.  In fact, you ought to read your opponent's writings twice especially if he/she is not particularly competent, or if he/she is beyond your level of understanding.  If you don't really understand a particular sub-point your opponent brings up, ask!  Do not just proceed as if you understand!  You probably will make a terrible mistake in your arguments and end up both losing the argument (if there's even such a thing) and looking like an idiot in the process.  Also, every internet argument will most likely include one or both sides providing links to support the arguments being made.  Do not ignore these posts.  Read each link with an open mind, searching for the argument(s) being presented and weighing those statements just as you would in the discussion forum.  Then, after you've read and reread, attempt to comment one what the person is trying to say.  Keep the conversation focused (see rule #5).  (I almost forgot to mention the one exception here.  If someone posts a link to a whole book, you do not have to read the whole book to be able to comment.  There is a reasonable limit to the amount of reading you have to do in order to respond, you draw your own line then be gracious in responding even consider reading books with which you will not agree.)

#4 - Eschew Obfuscation

I've always loved that joke!  Eschew: deliberately avoid using; abstain from.  Obfuscation: obscuring of intended meaning willfully ambiguous or harder to understand (often with the connotation that one is using longer/larger/lesser known words to do so).  It may be difficult, and I imagine some people read my stuff and assume that I don't follow my own advice.  Perhaps.  But if I do confuse people it certainly isn't intentional.  I like to be clear, and I generally try to use "clarity of language" to borrow a line from "The Giver" (movie).  In debate/discussion and in philosophy in general it is important to convey one's thoughts as clearly as possible.  That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use technical language, just that you ought to explain your thoughts in a way that your audience will understand your point.  If you confuse your opponent you haven't "won" the debate, you've merely irritated him/her to the point that he/she has given up, or soon will give up on the discussion.

#5 - Stay focused

As I'm writing this, I've come to realize that I've said that each different rule is the hardest.  Unfortunately, this one also falls into that category!  Haha.  Well, tell me.  How many discussions online have you been involved in that actually stayed on topic?  Now, I understand a bit of a tangent.  (If you know me in person, I'm sure you've experienced my ADD-like conversational style.)  However, when you're discussing ... say ... abortion online, don't get sidetracked into discussions about war or the death penalty.  That's not to say you should ignore those tangental discussions, just politely bring the discussion back to the primary topic.  Obviously those (and other) topics could be related to the topic at hand, but if you want the discussion to proceed try to keep it on track.  This one is more difficult if the discussion is taking place on someone else's page, because it's not your page and you cannot really control the flow of conversation.  If it is your page, then you can use any number of methods to control the conversation.  I typically delete completely unrelated comments; I also delete completely emotional attacks or completely insensitive and rude comments.  When it's your own page, you can control the flow much differently/better than when it's not your own forum.

Before I close this entry, I need to apologize.  I had this entry started months ago as a response to an online conversation I had, and since then I've had at least one other discussion on Facebook that went, more or less, the way I wanted it to go.  Then after some incredibly unsavory discussions, I decided to forgo Facebook for Lent.  I won't be back on Facebook until after Lent so I won't be engaging in the types of discussions addressed here for some time.  I do not really recommend Facebook as a forum for discussion, but it's a decent option because it's wide open and there is more openness with a wide range of interlocutors.  God bless you in your discussions.

Monday, August 25, 2014

On Debating and Bad Arguments

I've recently started listening to the NPR radio program, Intelligence Squared US.  I listen to various podcasts during my daily commute, and since I typically drive home for lunch I spend about forty minutes in my car daily.  The debates have been quite interesting.  So far I've listened to; Was Edward Snowden Justified?Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad?It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power?, and the last debate for this entry was Does Affirmative Action On Campus Do More Harm Than Good?.  I've also listened to More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete, but I'd like to save that one for its own full entry.  A word about the formatting and "scoring" of these debates; there are four debaters, two for the motion two against.  There are three rounds.  I assume the team that gets to go first is chosen at random because in the five debates I've listened to so far they seem to have alternated who goes first.  Each person gets seven minutes to state his or her case.  The second round is a Q&A session with both sides responding off-the-cuff to questions from the moderator, John Donvan, and audience members about the discussion.  Then the third round is another two minutes of uninterrupted time to state closing arguments (again, I'm not certain of the order I haven't really been keeping track if there's a pattern relating to the first round).  The scoring is fairly simple.  There's a poll taken at the beginning (before the debate) and another poll after the debate and the side whose percentage points change up the most wins the debate.

In, Was Edward Snowden Justified? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 29% against (wow even amounts!), 42% undecided
After: 54% for 35% against -- the side arguing that Snowden was justified won the debate.

What do you think?  I think (and as always my thoughts are my own and not the opinion of the US Gov. or the DoD or the US Air Force) that he was NOT justified.  I have a bit of an interesting point of view on this one, given my job.  But, I know there are multiple avenues through which one can lodge complaints, and I don't feel that Snowden did his due diligence to use them.  I understand that he was working within a system, and that he was dealing with appealing to those that perpetuated the situation itself. However, I feel that there are so many better ways he could have handled what he apparently thought were egregious violations of the constitution.  Also, if he were legitimately worried about the constitution he would have been more judicious in what and how he made the information available.  He released so much stuff (according to the debate and some news articles I read some time ago), that there's no way he could possibly know all the harm that he could be causing to the US and it's allies.  If he were really worried about specific injustices, he should have only dealt with and worked with those specific injustices.  The harm that he did, most certainly outweighs the good (if any), that came from his breaking his oath.

In, Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 44% against, 27% undecided
After: 54% for, 39% against -- the side arguing that the president should have the power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad won the debate.

Honestly, I am still mostly undecided in this one.  I think that we shouldn't handcuff the executive office when it comes to targeting enemies of the state (regardless of their nationality).  Also, I don't think we should restrict such targeting to specific countries, "war zones," or "hot battlefields" etc.  If we say, we won't target US citizens then terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek to recruit US citizens as a type of human shields.  Also, if we restrict our targeting to "hot battlefields" like Afghanistan, the terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek the "safety" of Pakistan and other neighboring countries.  I'm undecided because I think the constitution restricts such power in certain circumstances, but I think that in certain circumstances the power is under the executive's authority to wage war.  The side that argued for the motion did a much better job arguing than the opposing side.  The opposition's numbers actually went down, which is the first and only time I've seen that so far.

In, It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power? the results were:
Before: 25% for, 43% against, 32% undecided
After: 35% for, 58% against -- the side that argued that Russia is not a marginal power won the debate.

I am against the motion, but I feel that though Russia's once-world-superpower status still exists in a certain degree, it is quickly losing it's global meaningfulness and might even someday fade into obscurity.  I doubt that it will happen any time soon and it can be turned around with strong leadership, but it's current road is one towards weakness.

In, Does Affirmative Action (AfAc) On Campus Do More Harm Than Good? the results were:
Before: 22% for, 48% against, 30% undecided
After: 36% for, 55% against -- the side arguing for the motion changed their percentage of votes the most and though they had a lower percentage at the end, they are considered the winners of the debate.

This is a tough one, as it really doesn't apply to me and I don't really know many people to whom it would apply.  I feel like the side that won, those arguing for the motion that AfAc does more harm than good, made better arguments.  The side against, seemed to focus on emotional pleas and things like appeals to 50 years ago status quo.  They had an easier case to my mind, but they didn't make a very strong argument.  The side that argued for the motion cited multiple, peer-reviewed studies that showed that when weaker students were given AfAc bonuses to get into higher-level schools and programs they typically failed out and ended up being discouraged and dropping out altogether.  The much better option would be to place students appropriately according to their abilities and have them in a place that is better suited for their level and they complete their studies and go on to be better, more productive members of society.

What's the point of all this you may ask . . . Well, I've been thinking.  What makes a good argument?  Do passionate pleas of how the status quo is wrong and needs to be changed make good arguments?  I'm not willing to rule out all appeals to emotion, as after all, we're emotional beings.  We should, at least a little, think and act with our hearts rather than our minds.  But, what about issues like the AfAc question?  On the emotional side it seems wrong to criticize a system that has, or at least has as its core goal, helped so many that are unable help themselves; victims of a bad system of sorts.  But, should we let our hearts overrule our minds?  If there are legitimate studies that show the program doesn't work, should we maintain it, just because it's goal is to help these "victims"?

In the Snowden debate, one of the primary arguments against him being justified was the amount of irreparable damage his actions caused.  Is that a very powerful argument?  On its own, I'd say, no.  Just the amount one steals doesn't make it worse.  I know it's somewhat countercultural, but I believe that if one steals a $.05 pencil from one's place of work that person is just as guilty of stealing as the multimillion dollar embezzler.  I do NOT feel that the punishment of those crimes should necessarily be the same.  (I know what some of you might be thinking, "But wait, doesn't the God that you claim to believe in do that?" "Sentencing everyone to Hell regardless of the degree to which one sins!"  You'd be wrong, in fact, because the punishment for sin is death of which everyone is guilty and must submit to, but the punishment of Hell is for the ultimate in rejecting God's forgiveness.  People are not sent to Hell because of their sins, they are sent to Hell for the specific sin of rejecting God.)

I do have some difficulty listening to these arguments dispassionately sometimes.  I have certain arguments in mind when I hear the topic (sometimes, the debate about Russia's marginalism really didn't occur to me to be an issue), and when I am listening to the debate I try to divorce my preconceptions from the discussion and only weigh the arguments based on their individual merit(s).  There is no such thing as a complete tabula rasa, and we will always have some kind of bias.  Though to me, it's a hallmark of a truly thoughtful person to be able to examine one's own biases and understand them and keep them in mind when approaching new ideas.

I haven't been out to see the sunset in a while!  Need to make some time for it.