Can Civil Debate Save Us?

As a former competitive debater and current professor of argumentation theories, I get a lot of questions about what civil debate entails. Moreover, as a scholar of character assassination, I continually confront people who say things like “well if we all just practiced civil debate, our country [government/university] would run smoothly.”

One of the things I impart to my students is that such a thought is naïve. While I don’t disagree that civil debate can be a useful goal, it is not a panacea for all political challenges.

It’s helpful to think about what we mean when we long for civil debate. We likely expect civil debate to include a moderate tone, if not outright scholarly detachment. We also expect arguments supported by evidence. We are likely suspicious of emotional appeals. We would reject character attacks as irrelevant logical fallacies. Above all, however, the procedure would include both arguers and audience members listening to reasoned arguments and being open to changing their minds. At the end of the day, civil debate is about reason.

The challenge is that humans often aren’t all that reasonable. Study after study demonstrates that we are subject to confirmation biases and other types of neurological quirks that encourage us to dismiss new facts in order to support what we already believed. And, we rarely change our minds, even when confronted with new information.

Moreover, defining what counts as credible evidence is a sticky wicket, too. As argumentation scholars like to quip, “One person’s evidence is another person’s propaganda.” Evidence is always interpreted through personal values and beliefs, so it’s hard to predict what will be persuasive if you’re trying to get someone to change their mind. Facts don’t speak for themselves. Arguers frame them for their audiences.

Identifying a moderate and civil tone may be easiest of all civil debate goals. Debate is fundamentally a cooperative exercise, requiring arguers to, if nothing else, agree on the topic being debated. Yet, the things we debate on a political level often touch our deepest senses of obligation, morality, and identity. It’s hard, after all, to expect a mother to stay detached and calm when arguing for lower drug prices because her son died after he couldn’t afford insulin for his diabetes. Or for parents of children killed in school massacres to react calmly to debates about gun control. And even science seems to be telling us it might be time to panic about climate change. Emotions are powerful motivators and excising them from all debate seems both impossible and impolitic. The issues we are debating are, sometimes, literally life and death.

I have argued before, inspired by the work of Douglas Walton and the findings of my own rhetorical criticism, that we ought not make a blanket statement that character assassination or ad hominem attacks are bad. In fact, as Walton shows, ad hominem attacks may sometimes be well warranted and relevant to the debate at hand. I remain unconvinced that a plea for “a return to civility” helps political discourse in any meaningful way. (Besides, as Martijn Icks’s scholarship shows, we’ve been nasty for centuries!)

So where does that leave us?

Perhaps welcoming our robot overlords.

In fact, IBM has designed an artificial intelligence machine advanced enough to participate in human, academic debate. Yet, watching and listening to her debate a skilled human debater seems…sterile. This debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared US, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to critical thinking and reason, certainly had less interruptions and raised voices than their debates have had in the past. Project Debater, the robot, after all, did not interrupt or call her opponent names. She even appealed to basic human values like poverty reduction. Her unemotional nature certainly rubbed off on her human opponent who was collected and calm. (The human won the debate, by the way.)

The makers of Project Debater hope that she can help humans make better decisions quickly by marshalling evidence and providing counterarguments. But, humans aren’t robots, emotions are complicated, and we all have vested interests that would prevent us from being objective confronters of evidence.

Knowing all of this, I am compelled by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, which has laid out what it calls Standards of Conduct for Debate. These standards are mostly procedural, but apply mostly to formal situations like presidential debates.

From my end, though, perhaps the key take away is to resist seeing civil debate as the cure for all of democracy’s ills.

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