By Mason Carteri
Debate and discussion are two words thrown around regularly in the realm of political discourse – and for good reason, as they represent two of the most effective ways we present our ideas to others. At the surface level, each term seems almost synonymous with the other. We might think of them both as “talking about an issue with someone who disagrees.” However, despite these common threads, the two styles of discourse have wildly different applications, purposes and audiences. The difference between the two, and when they should each be used, is critical.
When two opposing politicians go head-to-head in a verbal contest over the issues, this is rightly called debate. Debate is confrontational. It is a “face-off” between two opponents staunchly embedded in their views and ideas, where the goal is to “win” by out-competing the opponent in oration, factuality and practicality. Although debate is (usually) governed by certain rules of civility, it is not itself a civil undertaking – it is a war of words in which the goal is the total refutation of the opponent’s points.
It shouldn’t be too shocking to discover then that most opponents in political debates do not have their minds changed by the arguments of the other side. After all, it’s quite hard to force someone who considers you an opponent to look at things from your point of view. So then what is the higher purpose of debate if your opponent’s mind is so often unchangeable? Is it simply a medium for entertaining the ego? Or virtue-signaling to those with whom you already agree?
No. Debate’s true and noble purpose is still to change minds – the minds of the audience. While an individual “in-the-fray” of it all is unlikely to see things clearly while doing verbal battle with their opponent, an outside audience is much more receptive to good and bad ideas, and faulty or effective logic. When an audience watches one side fail to argue fairly or logically, they may see that side as having weaker points, and thus sway towards the ideas of the “winning” side.
Of course, this isn’t foolproof, especially in an era where people are so secluded in their media bubbles and so ready to hide in the trenches of their existing ideology without braving the “no-man’s land” of the countless other philosophies and ideologies outside theirs. Many people will refuse to be convinced by even the clearest logic and most obvious facts. Many, sure, but not all – and thus debate still has its merit, especially when it comes to shaping the minds of the younger generations.
Debate should therefore be used when your intention is not to convince your direct opponent, but instead to change the minds of those watching your “duel” from the stands. Expect your opponent to remain as so; but hope that onlookers may sway your way!
Discussion is debate’s more charitable cousin. A discussion might be two friends talking over political issues and considering each other’s opinions and what logic each uses, or a group of thinkers parsing through the merits and failures of each other’s philosophies, with the intent of divining the closest thing to absolute truth. It is not a face-off, but more an intellectual conversation. Discussion involves an exchange of ideas between individuals who may disagree, but who fundamentally respect each other. This conversation isn’t meant to be won or lost, it is instead meant to be fruitful for both “sides.”
The goal of discussion is mainly to change the mind of your fellow discussioneers, to better understand their ideas and why they think the way they do, and maybe even to have your own mind changed. Therefore, it should be used when your goal is to directly change the mind of the individual(s) with which you are speaking. Although discussions may also cause onlookers to change their views and understandings of the issues discussed, as many adherents of programs like the “Joe Rogan Experience” insist, a true discussion should be for the individuals involved, not the audience.
Understanding the differences between these two mediums is critical to actually changing minds. If you were to carry out a debate with the understanding and open-mindedness of a discussion, you would likely appear weak and unsure of your own ideas – a clear indication to the audience that your opponent is more credible. On the other hand, if you were to enter into a discussion with the aggressive and victory-oriented style of a debate, you will likely learn next to nothing and only convince your opponent of your own entrenchment and partisanship. If it’s a discussion before and audience, you’ll probably look like an asshole, too.
Now more than ever, proper articulation of your views and competency in changing minds is critical if you have any desire to bring others closer to your own worldview; or even any hope of bridging the ever-growing divide between different ideologies. Proper application of all the tools of verbal communication and argumentation almost certainly will not save our discourse, nor will it bring everyone to your side of the aisle alone, but it will help.