Lots have been said about the low, and lowering, standards of political discourse in the US and elsewhere, as people of all persuasions lament it or offer ways to improve and fix it. The basic idea underlying this attitude is that an honest, open, fact-based discussion where people engage with each other in order to form their opinions is an important component of democracy. If the standards of public discussion deteriorate, people don't get a real chance to change their minds on the basis of facts and engagement with different opinions. Instead, we have vitriol and personal vindictive nastiness that masquerades as public political discourse.
I want to focus on a particular type of disease in public political discourse: the debate. The complaint is based on a distinction between discussion and debate. Discussion is a form of engagement where the purpose of the interlocutors is to exchange ideas, clarify for themselves and others what they really think, consider each other position and perhaps even persuade each other. A discussion may also be an argument: we may disagree on the matter at hand, even fundamentally. Indeed, by exchanging ideas we may discover how deeply we disagree. A discussion need not be dispassionate, logical or strictly intellectual: we can, while discussing, get angry or upset, express our outrage, affirm contradictory positions or deal with subjective, emotional issues. If we are having an honest discussion, I may be conflicted about something or just hold a position that's based on a contradiction. The discussion may or may not force me to resolve the tension one way or another, but the main purpose of the discussion to exchange ideas regardless of their content, though some people believe that an honest discussion of that form shapes the content in some important ways.
In contrast, a debate is a rhetorical competition, where interlocutors are trying to 'score points' and 'win' the argument. The ultimate 'win' in the debate is the unanswered retort, where one interlocutor leaves the other speechless. You can already see the analogy with a game - a debate is a kind of a game, where participants recognize the structure and the rules, devising strategies within them in the attempt to reach the goal and win. It sometimes masquerades as a discussion, but it actually has a different purpose: to find who is better at making argument. This is a subtle line, because sometimes debates are presented as a way to find out what is the best argument, not who is better at making argument. It is seen as a procedure that helps uncovers what is the best argument when we have a hard time determining it. When in doubt, the thought goes, bring out the people who believe most strongly in either side and let them debate: if one wins, it is evidence that their position is stronger.
Whether or not a debate is a good way to present evidence that the winning side is an open question. I believe that for the most part, like trial by combat, it isn't. When I say that debates are a disease that's not to say that they are always bad. Debates, like any other game, can be very fun. They are also a great way to develop rhetorical skills, and they definitely a way to air arguments on a specific topic that may contribute to the listeners when they form their opinions on topics. When I say that it is a disease, I mean that it is all too often over-appreciated: these benefits are exaggerated while the downsides are ignored. I want to go over a few of the corrosive effects of debates, and why I think their pervasiveness is a problem.
The main problem with debates is that if you're trying to win the argument, you are encouraged to use whatever helps you win the argument and avoid exposing the weaknesses in your own position. While in a discussion you may want to express how deeply conflicted you are about something - how unsure you are, how torn, how you find two conflicting positions appealing and you are having a hard time deciding; in a debate, this will rarely help you 'win' the argument (though sometimes it is, depending on the social context of the debate). Typically, in a debate, you are pushed to avoid explaining how you reconcile the weaknesses of your position unless your interlocutor forces you to. If you believe, as I do, that on most important issues one of the most reasonable positions to be in is to be torn, conflicted and skeptical, you would think debates are quite lacking as forms of political discourse.
But the problem is worse, because you're not only avoiding the expression of important pieces of your outlook but actively contributing immaterial points. For example, consider the logical fallacy known as 'ad hominem'. Ad hominem arguments are a kind of a distraction: instead of arguing against a position, you shift the topic and attack the speaker. They are particularly pernicious to the alleged goal of debates as a procedure that produces evidence for the stronger opinion because they are an explicit divergence from the advancing of that goal. Yet they are particularly conducive to the advancement of one's position in the debate because they are effective in silencing the interlocutor. If I can show that your position is such that discredits you completely, because of your moral corruption or your position of ignorance, I don't really have to deal with anything you actually say. I have already 'silenced' you, which is the ultimate win in a debate. But, of course, even if you are morally corrupt or truly in a position of ignorance, what you say may still be true. It may be true that you have never studied the subject or have no right to talk about it - but by shifting the attention to that, I am not engaging with what you're actually saying.
If you go over this list of fallacies, you'll find that debates encourages many of them. When debating it is helpful to make faulty strong generalizations and dismiss counterexamples as unimportant exceptions. In a debate, it's a very helpful to try and climb up to a moral high ground that is the mirror view of ad-hominem attacks, as well as to argue for whatever seems to defend a position whether or not you actually believe it.
Debates are very popular. They are a feature of cultural life and are common not only in politics but also, for example, in gaming. They are good fun and often they produce some thought-provoking ideas. If you have a formed opinion on a controversial issue, it might feel good to find an outlet that will let you express your beliefs as well as your rhetorical skills. It is definitely preferable to have debates than to repress disagreements or let the be expressed in some other, more violent ways. But they are a pretty bad way to go about political discourse, and they are not very good for helping people form ideas and opinions on controversial matters. For that, we need to have more discussion and less debate.