“Two ships passing in the night.”
That was the description I heard about one of the “Contemporary Discussions” (i.e., debates) held at the FHU lectures a few years ago. Each side was represented by a well-respected, well-researched, intelligent speaker. As far as I could tell, neither speaker did anything to convince anyone to “switch sides.” None of the questions that were asked afterwards or comments that I heard made me think that was the case, at least.
I may be mistaken, but I have always assumed that the purpose of a debate was to allow two opposing sides to collide in such a way that truth became clearer. But I’ve never heard of a debate that had the desired effect.
Perhaps one reason is that the people most likely to attend debates are the ones who are already “evangelists” for their point of view. It’s possible there’s an inherent closed-mindedness in debate audiences. I doubt that explains it all, though.
Tonight there was a debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the answers in Genesis guy). I didn’t watch the whole thing, but from what I can tell the results are in. Each side claims some sort of victory and is bothered that the other side didn’t really answer the questions.
That’s the same song and dance you hear after almost every Presidential debate, isn’t it? Usually the perceived winner is based on who had the best one-lined “zingers” or most charisma. The loser is the one who looked unsettled, defensive, confused, or disengaged. Or the guy that I came to the debate disagreeing with, anyway!
But again, wasn’t the point of the debate to use questions to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a point of view?
Okay, fine, I’ll admit that the point of a Presidential debate probably is more about TV ratings and swinging voters by rhetoric, rather than logic! But let’s stay with the main idea: why is so hard for two people who disagree to discuss their disagreement and actually get somewhere?
Here’s the short answer: it’s easier to talk past each other than it is to talk to each other. In a formal debate, each side has chosen what is believed to be their best material. If you’re in their shoes, do you leave your script to actually answer a new question, or do you stay on script? The security of the known sure is appealing, isn’t it?
But that’s not the only thing going on. It is easier to think about my next response than it is to actually listen and respond to someone else. Active listening is a tough skill. It becomes even harder when emotions are high or I feel like something is at stake. So it’s possible the debaters don’t even really hear each other.
Pride is an issue too. How often are debaters willing to say, “You may have a point there”? I’ve never heard or read it. Admitting a weakness or flawed reasoning isn’t the general practice of most of our conversations. It takes real courage and love of truth to be that vulnerable. I don’t intend to malign character, but it is a real possibility in debates that one or both debaters aren’t interested in fighting for truth, but victory. Many public figures are more interested in gaining followers than what’s right. I’m going to be an optimist and hope that this isn’t the prevailing problem, though!
Maybe the most common reason for debaters totally missing each other is this: despite the agreed terms of the debate, it’s pretty common to see that the two debaters are really looking at different questions. If they’re not looking at different questions, they’re looking at them with such different ways of thinking that they might as well be.
So what do we do about it?
When we find ourselves in disagreements—whether they be in public debates, internet comments, or just lunch table conversations—we have to make sure we’re really talking with each other, not at each other. We have to combat our pride. We have to really have interest in truth. We have to be willing to be proven wrong. And we have to explore the deeper questions to see if we’re even talking about the same things.
I don’t have much hope that we can fix the presidential debates, but I think we can make a difference in our own conversations.