Conversation versus Debate: if you can’t stand the heat, why don’t you just open the window?


I’m a fan of conversation. I’m a fan of conversation with people I agree with and with people I disagree with. Conversation with people I disagree with can be awesome. I’m fascinated by different points of view, I’m interested in having my own views challenged. And, also, as a sociology nerd I’m endlessly interested in what makes people tick. How our different experiences lead to different conclusions, how where we come from and how we interact with that helps to create who we are. It’s fascinating stuff.

But I don’t like debate.

Don’t get me wrong- 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.

In the real world, when I want to actually communicate with people, I tend to prefer conversations based more on understanding the perspective of the other. On seeing where their justifications are for what they do or think. On listening what the other person has to say, and being listened to in turn. Conversations based on openness as opposed to defensiveness. It seems to me that there’s a lot more to be gained from going into conversations with others with a view to seeing where each other are coming from and listening to the other. It seems to me that that’s the only way to actually learn something from the experience. It’s definitely the only way, for me, that includes the option that where I disagree with someone I might be the person in the wrong. It includes the confidence in myself to suspect that I might be wrong, and to be okay with that and open to the possibility of changing my mind. After all, isn’t that at the heart of scepticism?

And besides, if it turns out that I’m right after all, am I not a lot more likely to be able to convince others of that if we give each other a fair hearing instead of simply hammering home our own pre-existing points of view?

*I have no idea what would be a sensible nongendered equivalent for this. ‘Experts’ just didn’t have the same appeal. Suggestions, anyone?

4 thoughts on “Conversation versus Debate: if you can’t stand the heat, why don’t you just open the window?

  1. Masterdebaters? 🙂

    I agree, in a debate the underlying assumption is that both sides are right and it’s no longer about trying to convince the other, it’s about getting the audience to side with you. Much debating is packed with logical fallacies that can sometimes have a very strong effect on the audience. It’s one of the reasons why scientists do not like debating with pseudo-scientists, firstly because of the effect of fallacies and the effect of a skillful debater on an audience, but more so because it creates the impression of equality between two different arguments, when it is anything but the case.

    Great blog – I have subscribed via Google Reader.

    • Exactly! While, like I said, I do love watching a good debate, I’m not sure that it’s a good way to be convinced of something. It’s a form of entertainment.

      Also, thank you! I actually checked out your blog (and subscribed) yesterday, and have been trying to think of a way to respond to your last post that isn’t incoherently scathing towards the idea of suffering as a good thing. I might have to get back to you on that one 😉

  2. Pingback: Conversation, Not Debate | Consider the Tea Cosy

  3. Pingback: Conversation, Not Debate

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