The Great Debate and the Public Sphere.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of Democracy and is predicated on certain bonds of trust and respect. – Dr Cornel West.1

Debate is a fundamental part of modern political life. Frequently individuals gather together and argue their positions with the aim of resolving and illuminating differences. The aim of a debate may not always be to produce definitive and authoritative answers; often a thorough examination of the answers already presented is enough. In the modern media age this dialectic method is taken as an intellectual thresher; separating the spurious from the salient. While it is true that with enough honest scrutiny false-hoods, provided they are falsifiable in the Popper sense or just flat out irrational, will crumble we must consider whether debate does actually consistently achieve these optimal truth-seeking conditions.2

For a debate to be an honest appraisal of the positions in a disagreement it requires “debaters” to maintain a commitment to truth over rhetoric; worryingly an analysis of the kind of person who “wins” debates shows that this commitment is never really guaranteed. What I hope to show is that the nature of debating, as a competitive activity rather than an instructive tool, leads us to doubt its universal efficacy as an illuminating force.

Consider first a champion debater; someone who excels at convincing others of their position. Such a person is often sought after as an ally in politics and praised for their wit and strategy. Champion debaters are often praised for their rhetorical skill, and not necessarily for their familiarity with relevant literature or fact. The hallmark of a good debater is to be able to take whatever position assigned and turn it into a plausible stance while undermining others who attempt to do the same with other positions. The truth of the positions advocated by the debater are utterly irrelevant, the art of persuasion comes first. I do not think I am being cynical when I say that the ideal debater is someone who can make their position look better than it actually is and their opponents position look worse.

What faith can we have in debate as a tool to refine knowledge when the individual participants are so often inclined to obscure reality?

First, it should be obvious that I am not here to argue that all the outcomes from these more competitive debates are by de facto “tainted”. Often even the most competitive of dialectic investigations can yield positive results in raising new and salient objections while showing how old theories might be swapped with progressive new models.

Secondly, we should note that a debater who is advocating false-hood will generally be at a disadvantage as they struggle to interpret empirical evidence and work around aspects of rationality in order to best serve their position.

Therefore I do not wish to argue that competitive debate, where rhetoric becomes the focus of the activity over a search for truth, is entirely unproductive or indeed home to unrestricted postulation; instead I highlight that “debaters” in the singular disciplinary sense are trained not to investigate and articulate theories but instead to approach each subject with a set of explicit prejudices which they ultimately seek to confirm to their audience.

What should we take away from our possible disillusionment with the presumption that free debate is necessarily a champion of truth?

From our understanding of debating as a competitive discipline we can, reasonably, assert that whatever kind of intelligence is being tested in a debate it is not always related to a grasp of the subject in question. Debate can be used to clarify but there is also little doubt that debate can be engaged in in order to rustle up uncertainty by, for instance, deploying empty or pointless rhetoric through Gish Galloping (a method which involves drowning the opponent in so many false-hoods that they can’t possibly respond to all of them; the term was originally coined by the physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott).3

To progress from here we must acknowledge that public debates can be cynically manipulated by individuals with great strength in rhetoric to mislead and that debate does not necessarily bring about clarity although it no doubt plays a valuable role in that process.

We ultimately have to ask how far we can get public discourse away from competitive rhetoric based debating in order to push it towards “intellectual threshing”.  If this is a structural problem linked to the formats and incentives we re-enforce in our political culture then all we need to do is work to amend these structures so that individuals in the public sphere are not pressured to defend positions that they know are wrong.4 Alternatively the problem could be viewed as psychological; one simply does not want to believe that one is wrong and in-accordance with that will not want to “back down” in a public setting. Such a debate, over the cause of misleading rhetoric, is a matter for another day so I will end my piece here.


1. West, Cornel. “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society.” New York: Routledge (Published 2001) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25 June 2013].

2. Popper, Karl. “Conjectures and Refutations” London Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39 from Theodore Schick, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 9-13. ) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 29 June 2013]

3. Scott, Eugenie. “Debates and The Globe Trotters” [online] Updated 7 July 1994. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 June 2013]

4. For an example of political culture pressuring people to defend opinions they believe to be wrong we need look no further than the phenomenon of “flip-flopping”, where politicians are regarded as weak if they change their mind on a subject. Flip-flopping is nearly always taken as a sign of two-faced cowardice when it may actually be a sign of serious engagement with opposing evidence and argument.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s