The Devil Loves Debate

Debate is an essential method of communication. We engage in debate almost continually about most everything. It’s a skill we admire. We learn debate skills in school and we value skilled debaters most highly.

Healthy debate is great. But as with anything else, as with any essential medicine, a bit too much can become highly counterproductive, even toxic. We don’t typically appreciate, aren’t even aware of, the risks and side-effects, perils and pitfalls, associated with debate. There is a reason the devil is portrayed as a supremely skilled debater.

It’s tough to avoid debates. Even informal discussions are often surrogates for debates or can quickly transition to debates. We see debate as a good or even the best way to arrive at truth and consensus. We often pride ourselves in taking the role of “devil’s advocate” in our belief that forcing debate will yield greater insights and truth.

Debate can certainly yield the healthy outcomes we desire. But too often debate just lures us into a game of proving that our position is right, regardless of the merits. We sincerely don’t intend that, but the entire activity is fundamentally based on winning the race, coming in first, overcoming your opponent. Only by destroying your enemy can you truly reach a shared consensus.

Debates are often not won on the merits, but by who is more assertive, or who has more endurance to continue the debate. They are won by good debaters who can craft an argument that their lesser skilled opponents cannot sufficiently dismantle. That’s why we value “clever” debaters. We put too much faith in the value of facts in debating. Truthful debaters do not win debates. Clever debaters win debates.

All interactive debate is debate training. The more we engage in debate, get better we get at being a clever debater. We get more skilled at crafting or presenting our arguments in ways that win the debate, even in the skilled use of fallacious arguments and techniques that defeat less skilled debaters.

With every debate we get better at it. And with every win we get more positive reinforcement to engage in more debates. And as we win more debates on topics we are well-practiced in, the more we conclude and believe that our position is correct and that everyone else is wrong, as proven by the fact that they cannot defeat us in debate. When we get better at debating, we come to believe we must actually be smarter about everything.

But while having facts on your side should theoretically win debates, truth and even any semblance of reality are only nice-to-haves for a skilled debater. A skilled debater can convince lots of folks, and themselves, that evolution is not real, climate change is a hoax, vaccines are nanochip delivery systems, or that Donald Trump has never told even one lie.

Another pitfall of interactive, interpersonal debate is pride and a simple drive to win. We get caught up and we take it personal. Every time our opponent makes a good point, we are compelled by the rules of the game and by our sense of pride to defeat it by any means possible. If we cannot counter or save face somehow, we feel diminished. Rather than concede we very often move the goal posts, claim we actually said something different, that yes that’s exactly what we meant, or just start making ad hominin attacks and the debate just gets more and more erratic and heated creating animosity. This makes personal debate a risky activity but it makes interactive online debate particularly toxic very quickly.

All those debate sessions also have tangible effects on our neural networks. Each time we engage in “devils advocate” arguments our neural networks get trained, deepened, reinforced to believe as fundamental those arguments. We brainwash ourselves as much as others to progressively accept and believe wackier and wackier arguments. The more you debate, the more you believe your own constructions. Your rationalizations get more and more refined and unassailable. Engaging in debate is a way of strengthening our rationalizations, but is not necessarily a great way to reevaluate them. Christians have spent centuries “testing” their beliefs through debate, and that process of debate has only strengthened their clearly irrational systems of belief – both to themselves and to others.

Many debate tactics are highly successful precisely because they methodically nudge that subtle brainwashing process along. Well you can accept this point correct? Well you must then concede that. And again, when we engage in debate we do not only force drift in others, but we cement it within our own neural networks, making our own arguments feel increasingly valid and true.

At this point you are probably saying, so what? We need to debate and if we are engaging in unhealthy debate then we simply must do better. And in any case when I debate I’m open to being wrong and I am only interested in the truth.

I know we all believe that, but the process of debate makes it very, very easy to deceive ourselves as much as others.

I’m not saying don’t debate, but be as cognizant and hyper–vigilant always to avoid these pitfalls. As you my fictitious reader said before, we must have healthy debate, but we can only accomplish that if we treat it like fire. It is valuable and essential, but we must never lose sight for an instant of the danger of this essential tool.

One more point. Debate isn’t always personal and interactive. Healthy debate might require slower, more glacial debate processes.

I am resistant to even potentially unhealthy personal debate. But I write this blog even though anyone writing a blog nowadays is ridiculed as a relic, like that last holdout still posting on MySpace and sending Yahoo mail. But blogging is not simply cowardice to engage in debate, but it is a slower form of debate that does not suffer as much from the pitfalls inherent in personal engagement and the frenzy of the battle. It lets one side, as I am here, make a [presumably] well thought-out argument, and it allows others to digest, consider and even respond in similarly more dispassionate manner. It’s a slower burning, more controlled fire.

Likewise there are other alternatives to impassioned personal debate. Modern videos were once called “video blogs.” They similarly allow folks to digest the content in more neutral time space in which they don’t feel forced to make some argument, any argument to save face in the moment. Books, documentaries, legal proceedings, school courses, other forms of learning provide a slower but often more fruitful debate process. Science is fundamentally a healthy debate process, but it can only proceed slowly and somewhat impersonally.

Lastly, there are times when it is advisable to avoid debate altogether because it only serves to legitimize or otherwise elevate positions or arguments that should not be worthy of consideration. As an absolute atheist, I have argued against engaging in further debate about the existence of god. We have decided that civil society should not engage in debate about the merits of white supremacy or child molestation. These are not attempts to shut down legitimate discourse or avoid scrutiny. They are healthy recognitions that debate can in some cases be an inroad to indoctrination into unhealthy thinking.

Again, I’m not saying do not debate – or not to take your prescribed medicine. Of course debate must be a healthy essential tool for a healthy brain. But just be cognizant of the traps and pitfalls of this particular form of engagement with others and with the world. Unless we appreciate those pitfalls and remain sensitive to them continually, debate cannot serve as the valuable and productive form of interaction that it can and should be.

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