Are the days of honest debate over?
Are we on a decent to continuous confrontation?
It is widely acknowledged that if you are in a debate, before presenting ideas that oppose those presented by another; you talk about the parts of their view that you can agree with. Then, when you present your opposing ideas, the debate is already a discussion rather than outright confrontation. Your opponent now understands that you can see some merit in his or her position and so they are far more likely to accept at least part of your views, even those they initially disagreed with.
This “action plan” was first proposed by Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, inventor, and mathematician. His suggestion was to always see opposition as being the result of your opponent not having understood the whole big picture, and so the disagreement is a result of a mistake and not some personal defect and that this failing to see the whole picture is such a common mistake that everyone does it. No personal antagonism is involved. He stated, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.
In other words, if someone disagrees with you, you must first point out the ways in which they’re correct, before letting them discover the counter argument on their own.” He explains that persuasion is based on empathy: Arthur Markman, psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, suggests that, despite centuries passing, this thinking still stands. He said: “One of the first things you have to do to give someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and prevent them from digging their heels in to the position they already staked out. If I immediately start to tell you all the ways in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to co-operate. But if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other party a reason to want to co-operate as part of the exchange. And that gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position in a way that allows co-operation.”
All of this makes me wonder what has gone on in the last 400 years or so. With all the brain power, all the creativeness, all the inventiveness from philosophers, statesmen, and politicians around the world; coupled with Pascal approach to debate, why are we not in a world of peace, cooperation, understanding, and tolerance?
I guess we all have opinions on why; some will say it is the fault of religions, others will say, greed, pursuit of power, politicians with no commitment to the cause they proclaim, the modern acceptance of deceit as being "normal and acceptable" in politics and some will claim the huge media pressure that sees understanding and compromise as reason for scorn and ridicule.
A modern politician who says, “Some of what the opposition says is soundly based and we can work things out” will be hounded out of office; lampooned as weak, indecisive, backsliding, lacking conviction, and a traitor to the cause. It should be noted that the cause in this case being the support of the views held by the owners of that media outlet.
One of the reasons debate has been replaced by regurgitation of established views, is the sheer scale of those involved. Whilst two people sitting by a fireside can have a civilised debate and reach rational conclusions, this is impossible where there are hundreds of people speaking dozens of languages and starting from so many positions and so very often, with hidden agendas. The cost of not being perceived as having “won” the debate is now so very high, both in terms of personal esteem and in the financial ramifications for years to come, that no one will risk this.
The concept of an “honest debate” has been totally lost in world politics. The concept of honesty is being degraded throughout every aspect of life. Reality shows on TV that are scripted and edited, the “professional foul” in sport, the small print by which financial institutions mislead customers, courts that decide right or wrong on the basis of legal augment alone, these are all contributing to the lack of honesty in every person's life. Bearing false witness, committing perjury, used to be one of the worst crimes only below murder and rape in the opprobrium to be heaped on the perpetrator, but now people are protected and can profit from such deceits.
I was once told by a quite senior policeman that when a case gets to court the winner will be those with the most devious and manipulating legal representative. His cynicism is not misplaced, all around us we see justice being replaced with wining the argument. Lies to get votes in elections. Personalities, and their failings, being more important than policies. Appearance triumphing over ability, these are everyday normality now. So where is this taking humanity? Are we heading to a state where no one believes anything and that all reason is wasted? A sort of intellectual anarchy, where the powerful can buy more power and the weak suffer every injustice that can be fed to them. It is not just democracy that is being degraded, it is humanity itself.