I haven’t focused a lot on public debates throughout this blog, and since I’m planning on finishing writing it soon, I wanted to write a post about public debate. Since most of us are not able to be involved in the debate team in high schools or colleges, I think it’s important that people know other ways to be involved in what is probably the most educational and useful activity their is. Thus, it’s important for people to be involved with public debate.
Other than the educational value of public debate, the activity has importance in that it involves the community in an issue that is important to them, thus strengthening deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy is especially important considering how easy it is for citizens to have their rights taken away, thus making it important for people to be express their opinions and have their voices heard.
So how do you get involved in public debates? There are a couple ways to do so. First, you should contact your local government offices and see if they have any information. Figure out what the main issues are affecting your community and figure out if someone has organized an event around discussing it. If no one has, you could even organize your own public debate to invite members of the community to discuss the issue. Additionally, if you live in a community with a college close-by, chances are you have access to some kind of debate organization that holds public debates. My school certainly holds numerous public debates each year in which several members of the community show up and participate in what quickly becomes an educational discussion about an issue affecting the community.
Since it’s so important and definitely possible to be involved in public debates, I strongly suggest that you get involved.
Research skills are probably the most important skills a debater gets. Because of the research-oriented nature of the activity, debaters are forced to conduct massive amounts of research throughout their debate careers. These skills transfer over to help debaters in the real world when they’re forced to conduct research for their jobs. Hence, a very large amount of debaters end up in highly-research oriented jobs. These skills also help a lot with school work, as when a debater is assigned a research paper, the amount of time it takes to conduct research is drastically reduced by their efficiency. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly I am able to find articles pertaining to a particular topic in class because of the research skills I’ve been taught through debate. It’s definitely something that’s going to help me a lot throughout my life.
Something that often dissuades people from debating or arguing is disagreement. People tend to run away from disagreement in order to keep the peace with another individual or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. The problem with this approach is that people then never discuss issues in their lives, and are thus mired in ignorance. Instead, people should argue and debate– but they should relax.
By “relax” I mean that people should realize that staying calm is the best way to ensure that one thinks clearly and logically. Obviously there are certain arguments that put people’s identities on the line (e.g. a gay man arguing in favor of gay marriage wouldn’t and shouldn’t be expected to detach his identity from the argument) but there is a difference between getting really worked up over an argument and being personally attached to an argument. Personal attachment is inevitable and in certain situations a good thing; getting pissed off often leads to saying offensive things that have nothing to do with the argument.
So let’s not run away from disagreement and debate, but instead try to remain calm and collected while having them.
I touched on this subject a bit in my previous post, but the way that public arguments operate has largely changed in the public sphere. I think that Thomas Goodnight has an excellent explanation of how arguments have changed. He argues that there are three spheres of argumentation– the public sphere, the private sphere, and the technical sphere. The public sphere is the place where argumentation happens in public and people can discuss issues that effect everyone. The private sphere is where people can have deliberation among themselves and people they’re comfortable with, without reasons why their claims are true (for example, when your grandmother says that Obama is the devil, that is acceptable as an argument in the private sphere). The technical sphere is the sphere in which experts talk to other experts about what they are experts on– for example, when a lawyer talks to another lawyer about law, s/he is taking part in the technical sphere.
The problem with the way that arguments are developing is that the private and the technical sphere are both encroaching on the public sphere. I don’t think that the technical sphere’s encroachment is necessarily bad, because it results in individuals acquiring more knowledge about a range of fields, but the private sphere’s encroachment means that arguments can be defended by simply saying “well that’s just my opinion”. It has become more accepted, for example, for someone who opposes abortion to simply say “it’s just my opinion that it’s wrong” or “I was raised to believe that abortion should be illegal”. This results in partisanship and largely prevents compromise on issues, because people refuse to back down from their opinions or give warranted explanations to defend their position. For the better of society, we need to take back the public sphere and stop the private sphere from encroaching upon public deliberation.
Something that I find incredibly frustrating during a discussion is the lack of an argument that people generally have. The fact of the matter is that the general public sphere either doesn’t know what an argument is, or doesn’t decide to use a complete argument when arguing.
An argument is not a shouting match, or attempting to trick somebody into thinking something different, or personal attacks. An argument consists of at least one premise and a conclusion that logically follows from the premise. A premise is something that the person presenting the argument assumes to be true (“I am a person” or “The United States of America is a country”). A conclusion is the final statement that a person has been attempting to prove (“therefore, same-sex marriage should be legal” or “therefore, the government should stop borrowing money from China”). The conclusion must logically follow from the premise, as that’s the only way to prove that the conclusion is true (“I am a person”, “therefore I am a cat” is NOT a logical argument, for example).
This is an important distinction to make– absent underlying premises and logic, it is impossible to argue against an argument because there are no foundations for the claim being made. It is impossible for me to dispute that it is someone’s opinion that abortion be ruled illegal in the United States, because that is in fact that person’s opinion. And just because someone holds that opinion doesn’t make it the correct policy for the United States to follow– there is not a logical reason for the government to follow one person’s opinion.
So let’s all try to make actual arguments when we’re deliberating within the public sphere.