What's Wrong with Debates
Not an effective tool for solving problems!
Zoe Weil :
It's debate season in the U.S.
Televised debates are one of the primary ways citizens evaluate presidential candidates. But because it is virtually impossible to offer well-articulated, honest solutions to our problems in their allotted time, candidates perform, interrupt, deflect, and try to get in their prepared memorable sound bites and zingers in order to be tweeted, discussed, and gain media attention the next day.
The scorecards - brought to us afterward by the pundits who decide who won, even though we watched the debate ourselves and should, therefore, be able to decide for ourselves - have little to do with whether the candidate offered anything of true substance.
The problem with debates isn't just that they are largely ineffective tools for evaluating political candidates before elections. It's also that it is always debate season in the U.S., and debate is not an effective tool for solving actual problems.
I've (reluctantly) participated in debates. When I worked for an animal protection organization in the 1980s and 90s, I was periodically invited to schools and universities to debate the controversial topic of animal experimentation.
Before the debates began, I was often introduced simply as Zoe from the animal protection organization, and my counterpart, usually dressed in a white lab coat and often sporting a stethoscope, was introduced as Dr. So-and-so from a high-status institution.
Theoretically, I should have "lost" the debate before we even started, based on my youth, my gender, my size (I weigh less than 100 pounds), my obvious bias, and my lack of scientific credentials, but I often "won," simply because I was an experienced, well-prepared speaker skilled at engaging audiences. (I also like to think I had ethics on my side given the egregious cruelties perpetrated on animals in many laboratories and the reality that there is no experiment, no matter how painful or irrelevant to human health, that is against the law, but I digress).
Which brings me to this question. What is the value of debates?
The popular podcast, Intelligence Squared, regularly airs debates, shared on public radio and TV, on topics like these:
"The U.S. is Responsible for Mexico's Drug Wars"
"Automation Will Crash Democracy"
"Humanitarian Intervention Does More Harm than Good"
"The U.S. Healthcare System is Terminally Broken"
Yes or no; for or against.
Intelligence Squared describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that "addresses a fundamental problem in America: the extreme polarization of our nation and our politics." Its mission "is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse."
That's a worthy mission. We should all be dedicated individually and as a nation to the cultivation of critical thinking, fact-gathering, and reason. By themselves, however, critical thinking, fact-gathering, and the cultivation of reason are insufficient for achieving the worthier goal of addressing complex problems collaboratively and solving them in ways that do the most good and least harm for all stakeholders. To achieve that goal, we also need systems thinking, strategic thinking, creative thinking and the motivation to make a positive difference.
The debate format is also not the most likely to lead to civil discourse, one of Intelligence Squared professed goals. Civil discourse evolves much more organically when people representing different perspectives and experiences come together with the purpose of creating solutions that benefit all, rather than with the goal of winning a debate. Furthermore, by positing only two sides to highly complex issues, debate may actually exacerbate rather than diminish polarization, even creating it where it shouldn't exist in the first place.
What's the outcome of Intelligence Squared debates? Audience members vote before and after; there are winners and losers, and the show moves on to the next topic. Certainly, the show gets people thinking about important issues (and is entertaining), but does it serve the stated goal of reducing polarization? Does it solve any of the problems it addresses? Might a different approach achieve more meaningful results?
Why reduce something as complex as the causes of Mexico's drug wars to an either/or question about who is responsible? Why not bring together people impacted by these wars to explore the many interconnected systemic causes and to devise systemic solutions and implement them?
If automation might crash democracy, what might we do about this potential problem? Or maybe we should ask this broader question instead: What are the current threats to democracy, and how might we address them?
Or how about this take on the topic of humanitarian intervention: Since humanitarian aid alone cannot solve our problems and has been shown to lead to many unintended negative consequences, what are the best ways to approach famines, refugee crises, and natural disasters, both short term and long term?
We all know the U.S. healthcare system is a mess, but how does debating the narrow question of whether it is "terminally" broken help us build a healthcare system that works for all?
The research one needs to conduct to be well-prepared for a debate can be a first step in surfacing many of the nuanced considerations embedded in complex problems, but there shouldn't be a winner or loser. Rather, this research can prepare participants for the real work of solving problems.
Schools and universities in the U.S. seem wedded to debate as well. Not only are debate teams ubiquitous, some high schools require students to participate in a debate in which they are assigned to one side or another of a fabricated either/or scenario. They are told to research, argue, and win.
The fundamental problem with debates is that they squander the profound opportunity for solutionary thinking on an intellectual gladiatorial battle. Instead of working together in classrooms to solve actual problems, we suit up children in business attire to perform in the coliseum of the school auditorium, where winners receive the spoils of a good grade.
Imagine instead, students working on solutionary teams to tackle the problems they face in their communities, nation, and world. If we are wedded to competition, then let's have those teams compete to determine which groups are able to solve challenges in the most humane, sustainable, effective, and solutionary ways possible. They can then present their work not only to their school community, but also to investors, legislators, media, and community members who can help advance the best ideas.
Imagine all the problems we could solve.
(Zoe Weil, M.A., M.T.S., is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, the author of seven books, and a frequent speaker on creating a healthy and just world).