Conversation, Not Debate


Over the past few weeks, this wee bloglet of mine seems to have gotten a decent bit of attention. While that is, of course, nice, if a bit disconcerting, I may be about to destroy it in one fell swoop. I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while, and was reminded of it the other week when the (amazing) Captain Awkward linked to The Gloss’s article When Men are too Emotional to Have a Rational Argument. Also, a few recent comment threads have threatened to go in a direction I’m not particularly comfortable with. I want to talk about why.

I’ve written about this before, by the way. I’m bringing it up again for a couple of reasons- the first being that this is my little sandbox, and I’d like to at least give guidelines for the way that we play here. The second reason is that I feel I have a far better handle now on why I think the way I do and what I want to gain from this.

What are we doing here?

What is the purpose of conversation? What is the purpose of this conversation? Are we here to spread our existing views as loudly as we can, or are we here to communicate with others and learn from them?

I think that there is a place for both. Some days I kick back, open up Pharyngula and watch PZ kickin’ ass and takin’ names. And some days I hop over to Youth Defence or the Iona Institute’s pages and get my snark on. It can be a beautifully cathartic thing, and there is definitely a value in making sure that those people know that they are doing something up with which we will not put.

But I don’t want this blog to be that space. I’m not here to fight. I’m here to communicate. I don’t come to this blog certain that I have all the answers. I write my views here. Those views are generally well-researched and I’m happy to stand behind them. But as a social science-trained skeptic I know that my views are both provisional and biased. I want them to develop over time. I want to be exposed to new information, evidence and perspectives that can change my mind if my mind needs changing. That’s why I’m here.

Where do we want to be after this conversation?

Are you willing to change your mind? After a conversation, do you want to be in the same position as you were before it? Or do you want to have new information to consider and use to develop your view? Is your view entrenched or provisional?

There is nothing more frustrating than a conversation with someone who has already made up their mind, before you’ve said a word, what their position is. Obviously there are cases, by the way, where the evidence in favour of one perspective or another (Homeopathy! Global warming! The kyriarchy! Evolution!) is overwhelming. But in many other topics there are a lot of grey areas. A lot of the things I talk about are still up in the air, and (even) perspectives that I disagree with have value. Do we want our perspectives to change and develop, and to go away from conversations with food for thought? Do we want our conversation partners to do the same? Or do we want both parties to leave every bit as entrenched in their views as before, and just a little bit more resentful of the other?

I want my conversations to be productive. I want them to produce development and changes in our opinions. I want our views to become richer and more nuanced, to take into account complexities and not be afraid to let go of easy answers.

Who gets to speak?

More importantly, who is silenced? There are people who favour a robust, confrontational style of debate. They have great big swathes of the internet and wider media to play in. As last year’s version of me said:

I like watching debate. Watching debates can be great, especially watching great debaters. But watching debate to me isn’t like watching a conversation. It’s like watching a game. Watching two masters* of their craft debate each other is like watching masters of any sport. It’s exciting. There’s an immense amount of skill involved. And someone’s gotta win, and someone’s gotta lose.

Debate is a sport, and it is about winning. It’s highly oppositional. In a debate, the only way that you really try to listen to the other speaker is to seek the flaws in their argument. You’re playing to the crowd, dancing around the other debater to win the audience around.

And that can be an immense amount of fun to watch, and I’m sure an immense amount of fun to take part in. But however entertaining debate can be in this context, I no more wish for it every day than I want to invite someone around for tea and be dragged out to run a marathon, chocolate biscuit in hand.

It’s an unfortunate fact that louder, more confrontational people tend to get heard more than those who are more subdued. I’m guilty of this myself- there are times when I go off on one myself. I ain’t perfect. But I don’t think that loudness or debating skill has any deeper meaning than being loud or good at debating. It doesn’t mean that your point is any better. And an oppositional style of conversation almost necessarily neglects the legitimate points their opponent has made.

I want to hear from people who don’t do debate. I want to provide a space where their voices can be heard. I think that non-debaters can have interesting and novel things to say, and I want them to be able to air their views without being sucked into an argument.

What kind of conversation is most productive?

I’m sick and tired of the glorification of confrontation. Confrontation is sometimes necessary and, yes, it can be exhilarating. It has a place. It can also be exhausting, upsetting, and can entrench people in imperfect sides when there is value and nuance in between and outside each of them while putting off others from even entering the conversation.

People have perspectives for a reason. Sometimes that reason is ridiculous, irrational and blatantly false or biased. Sometimes it’s not, and different sides can both have valuable and important points. The only way that we can convince each other of that value, however, is to be willing to listen to what the other person has to say. Not to shut up until it’s time to make your point. To actually listen to what they are saying and not what you think they are saying. To understand why they are saying it. To engage with their points as deeply as you do your own. To be willing to change your mind, to learn, and to develop. I don’t want to debate. I want to collaborate.

That’s the kind of conversation I want to have.

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9 thoughts on “Conversation, Not Debate

  1. I love your blog, and the fact that you publish it, not least because the only time I’ve ever posted to the effect that I had reservations about something you’d said, you actually thanked me.

  2. I understand how you feel! Debates are awesome but can be really exhausting. As a person often low on spoons and as someone who has some fairly intense conversations, often, there’s only so much I can take. This is your blog, you call the shots. *hugs* your articles are, as always, consise, intelligent, engaging and biased… And that Is precisely why I enjoy reading it. x

    • Yep. I think that making a space for people who might have their spoons sapped by confrontation to have their voices heard is so important. There’s a privilege to being a person who can be loud and bolshy and elbow their way into conversations. I want to hear from the people who don’t normally get their voices heard that way.

  3. Pingback: Do You Engage to Enrage? « Cheri Speak

  4. I was just going to click “like,” but as I’m not a blogger, I couldn’t. This is a great post, thanks!

    • And that is one of the best openings I’ve ever seen for blog evangelism ;)

      (No seriously, blogging is awesome and fun and everyone should give it a go. Er, if they want to)

  5. Pingback: Pity, compassion, and empathy | Consider the Tea Cosy

  6. I find it confusing that you say you don’t do debate. Telling someone you disagree and why is an argument. It sounds like you are okay with that. A conversation (back and forth) concerning a disagreement while offering reasons that support one’s view can be considered to be part of a debate. You don’t sound like you are against that as long as it’s rational and respectful. And yet even a perfectly rational and reasonable conversation involving a disagreement of this type can be frustrating and lead to bad feelings. I would not expect anyone to change their mind from a conversation that completely lacked arguments/reasons to believe things.

    • For me, the difference between conversation and debate is in purpose. When I think of debate, I think of two sides with entrenched views that they are trying to convince the others of. When I think of conversation, I think of people sharing their views- and yes, evidence for those views- but without that same sense of entrenchment. In a debate, it’s assumed that you’ll pick a side. Conversation allows space for perspectives to change and develop over its course.

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