On Debating Civilly and Fairly

There are few things as rewarding as a good, honest debate where both sides treat each other with respect. Such debates can create understanding where none was before or lead both sides a little closer to the truth. Sometimes they even create friendships that might not have been formed otherwise, friendships built on a strong foundation that cannot be shaken easily.

Whether engaged online or off, whether about a serious political issue affecting millions or about an obscure comic book known only by a few, such debates are a gift, one not to be taken for granted by either party. They are a life-giving blessing, as wonderful as a tall glass of ice water after a hot Texas summer afternoon.

Yet there is another side to debate, one that is (unfortunately) far more common both on the Internet and in real life. This type of debate is known on the Internet as a “flame war,” although it can be performed in real life, too. You know what I’m talking about. Both sides hurl the worst insults they can think of at each other and tear apart their opponent’s beliefs using all manners of logical fallacies. The “winner” is whoever doesn’t rage-quit first, which if you think about it is not much of a victory at all.

Because I am a naturally conflict-avoidant person, those debates always drain me. They are never worth the effort put into them. If you find yourself being drawn into one, either steer the discussion back in a civil direction or quit. Better to quit with your integrity intact than to “win” with your integrity in shambles.

In my opinion, debate should have one of two purposes: Either to help bring both parties closer to the truth or to help clarify both parties’ beliefs. In some cases a debate can do both, but usually civil debate is one or the other.

If the purpose is to find truth, then both sides need to be as honest as they can possibly be. They must be willing to abandon core convictions if they are proven wrong. They must follow the facts wherever they lead, even if they lead in an uncomfortable direction. If their opponent makes a good point, they must acknowledge it, no matter how they feel about it. They must be willing to say “I don’t know” when they are ignorant about something.

If the purpose is to understand the other side better, the both sides need to listen to the other. They must be willing to abandon whatever stereotypes they may hold about the other side. Neither side should presume to know more about their opponent than their opponent does. Accept correction from the other if some of your beliefs about them are wrong.

“That sounds fine and dandy,” you might be thinking, “but what if your opponent in a truth-seeking debate is being dishonest? What if your partner in an understanding debate is not listening to you? What do you do then?”

This is tough. It’s easy to fight fire with fire. Someone punches you? Hit ’em back, maybe even harder than they hit you. After all, they had it coming, didn’t they? It’s what they deserve.

No. Even if they are not listening to you, you should listen to them. Even if they are being dishonest, you must be honest. Do not sink to their level. I can guarantee you that, despite the temporary high “winning” a debate offers, you will regret it. There are many times where I acted like my opponent and ended up regretting it, even if I technically “won” by conventional standards of debate.

It’s a shame so many debates end up as little more than mud-slinging contests. How better would our world be if most people were better listeners and were more honest. I doubt it would resolve all conflict or fix all our problems, but it would certainly make life a lot more pleasant for everyone, I should think.

What do you think? How do you debate? Share your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim