A debate should be the expression and comparison of ideas.
One side should challenge the other when necessary, and the ideal outcome is that all parties are able to say their piece, distinguish their arguments from those of their opponent, and walk away knowing that information was shared. Everyone learned something, even if they didn’t agree with everything that was said.
When is the last time you walked away from a political debate feeling enlightened? In most cases, such ‘debates’ are no more than parallel speech-fights, where one combatant has their say while the other nods their head condescendingly before launching into their own monologue. The speeches presented generally somehow relate to the question asked, but rarely answer them with specifics, and sometimes veer so far off course that they answer questions that weren’t asked.
Of course, politics isn’t alone in incentivizing such debates. Most formalized arguments over ideological topics end up the same way, with both sides talking past the other, minds made up ahead of time. Who has ever been shouted at by a political, technological, or religious diehard and had their mind changed as a result?
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to have a productive debate. They do happen from time to time, though rarely in public, and rarely between people who are elected into their jobs. But it’s incredibly difficult, and generally only possible if everyone involved enters with the intent of learning as well as teaching.
Imagine entering into an ideological discussion not knowing what you’ll believe when it’s over, knowing the other people involved can be convinced, as well.
The concept is almost beyond comprehension in some settings, but it’s nice to think we all might be open to learning and adjusting based on new information rather than holding to party, faith-based, or other ideological lines, too stubborn to listen to what other minds with other ideas and other perspectives from which to view problems have to say.
Update: February 22, 2017
I’ve written about this topic a few times since this post was published, and almost always hear from people who read them, wondering how it is that we manage to say so much but convey so little. People have trouble imagining purposeful debates, which speaks volumes about where we are in terms of public debate, in particular.
Of all the tricky things I sometimes ask people to consider, I think one of the most tricky to fathom is the idea of entering a discussion or debate, willing to be convinced, not just to try to convince.