A society of debate: approaching divisive discussions with civility

I have noticed a trend in classes here at the University of North Georgia that whenever controversial subjects come up students are averse to engaging in the debate. I have also noticed that on occasion what starts as debate devolves into an argument, debate’s less civil and less productive cousin.

These trends of aversion to and perversion of debate inhibit the dialogue in the classroom. Debate is not necessarily a platform to prove everything the other person says is wrong, nor is it a platform to attack and degrade the other person. Debate is a platform for exchanging ideas and trying to understand the points of views of others.


I spoke with Nolan Hendricks, former president of the Demosthenian Literary Society, an extemporaneous debate society at the University of Georgia, about my views on debate and strategies for achieving better debate. The Demosthenian Literary Society is one of the oldest debate societies in the country, and every week the members get together and debate any topic that is proposed during the meeting.

“I honestly think well-structured fair debate is the solution, and coming to a common agreement on objective facts,” Hendricks said.

One thing that is lacking in a lot of debate is structure. Debate needs to be fair, and we need to agree to the rules of discourse before we can begin to have productive debate.

“Obviously it’s not the U.S. Senate that you’re debating in, but if you come at it with an attitude of respect for each other and each other’s viewpoints you’re going to have a lot better time,” Hendricks said.

Without objective facts, we as a society cannot possibly hope to come together and understand each other. The idea of “alternative facts” cannot be accepted. There are only two kinds of facts, those that are true and those that are not.

While it is true that facts can be interpreted in multiple ways and the meaning of facts can be open to discussion, disputing quantifiable verifiable data is not a fair argument.

The caveat to this is when facts are not true. In the age of “fake news,” it can be hard to discern which facts are true and which aren’t. We as a society need to push to reject that which is inherently false and verify that which we know to be true, because if society is living in separate realities there is no chance of common ground.

Foremost we need to listen to each other. If we don’t listen to each other, then there is not a chance that we can understand each other. It is not enough, however, just to hear what the other person is saying. “Listening is a two-way street — if they’re listening to rebut, then they aren’t listening to understand which is a big difference,” Hendricks said.

That is not to say that we should not rebut, that is to say that the best rebuttals come from truly understanding what the other person is saying.

Debate should not be one or more people degrading one another with no chance for understanding. Debate is not always going to end in complete convincing of the other party.

“You don’t need to move the marker from a ten to a one, you can move it from a ten to a nine, or even a nine and a half — that’s progress and that’s progress on both ends. I feel like that’s really important,” Hendricks said. “When you’re talking with someone across the aisle remember that you don’t need to agree with everything they are saying to agree with a single point.”

A debater needs to recognize that to entertain some points of an argument is not the same as fully accepting it. Finding the common points that we can agree on is important because they allow us to better understand the motivations of those of us we disagree with.

Understanding and agreement on what the common issues are is the only way we as a society are going to be able to heal the rift that has divided our country. Without debate it is all too easy to fall into an echo chamber where your ideas aren’t challenged but rather are validated with no rigor applied to them.

Echo chambers do not allow us to understand each other, we need to offer up our ideas to be debated so that we can find if they have the merit we believe them to have. We should not be averse to debating and having what we believe challenged, because it is the best tool we have to both convince and understand others.

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