Etiquette: Rules for Debate

I think I’m lucky. I grew up in a family that respected intelligent, friendly debate about all issues. A family where any viewpoint could be heard, challenged, and discussed without fear of hostility or anger. People make fun of me when I tell them that my family makes coffee and watches Meet The Press together on Sunday mornings . And while the press is talking, so are we. Talking about social issues and fiscal policy. Apparently normal American families don’t do that.

Of course, normal American families, aren’t necessarily like mine. My mother comes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and had a mother who was very liberal. My father insists that the proper word is “socialist,” but that’s because he comes from a family that’s very conservative. He spent his youth on a farm in western Michigan. Needless to say, the two of them disagree often because of their opposing political views. (Oh, the Obama vs. McCain debates in 2008. The ones in my house. Not on television.)

Not everyone can discuss immigration laws, drug reform, abortion law, and gay rights at their breakfast table on Saturday morning. Which is why I think many people don’t know how to have these discussions. I’ve found that many people simply react with immediate hostility and defensive behavior when someone proposes a view that is contrary to their own. They jump to defend their belief system by saying “You’re WRONG!” Instead of, “Here’s why I’m right.” And eventually that debate devolves into nothing more than name-calling and he said/she said.

Being that we are in an election year and politics is on the brains of just about everyone, I’ve put together a list of how to behave in friendly, open debate:

  1. Assume that no one’s position is 100% right. Including your own. Everyone’s viewpoint is colored by personal background, religious belief, and facts that you don’t know or can’t understand.
  2. You don’t get to tell anyone they’re wrong. Unless you can tell them why. If your response isn’t at least two sentences long, don’t write it down or yell it from the rooftops. Gut reactions are important, but only if they’re backed by logic.
  3. Remember where you are. This is friendly, intelligent discourse. It should never be taken as a personal attack, but rather an opportunity to learn something you didn’t know. Give points to your opponent(s) where due, take issue with them where you have issue with them, or request clarification if you’re unsure.
  4. No swearing or finger-pointing. Well, no swearing in a hostile way. I have a mouth like a sailor sometimes (I am a sailor’s daughter), and I fully support the use of adjectival expletives, but don’t use them to demean anyone. Also, no name-calling. Because if you need to resort to name-calling, it makes your own argument look faulty. And you don’t want that.
  5. Learn. Pay attention to what other people are talking about. You may not agree with anyone else by the end, but you may gain a new perspective on the situation as a whole, which will allow you to defeat those same arguments when you have this discussion with someone else.

Now, shall we discuss the relative faults and merits of ObamaCare?


*Full disclosure, this was originally written for the now-defunct law school blog “Running With Fireworks.” It has been edited and reposted for your reading pleasure.

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

4 replies on “Etiquette: Rules for Debate”

I’ve stopped trying to talk politics with my dad because it’s just too infuriating. If he would ever back anything up with facts instead of anecdotes it might be easier, but he’s a stubborn Libertarian and won’t listen to a damn word I say. Of course, he lives in Texas so it really doesn’t matter which way he votes in the presidential elections, so I mostly just grit my teeth when he starts spouting some nonsense about Obamacare or taxes.

My family pretty much agrees politically, so I usually don’t have to do much arguing with them (though I have had to explain the concept of privilege to my parents, and educate them on a few other things). Which is probably good because I’m really bad at it. I am OK if I’m arguing on Facebook and can think and edit what I type out, but I get flustered when I’m arguing verbally. It’s annoying because it makes me sound a lot less intelligent than I am.

I have to laugh . . . In my household we watched and debated Point/Counterpoint and the McLaughlin group . . . “Friendly debatE” seemed to have disappeared a decade ago. The only way to start solving some of our very difficult,complex problems is to acknowledge the validity of the differences in our viewpoints and come together in compromise in our solutions. We need to stop demonizing the”other”side with extreme labels. You must inherently understand this because your mom is not a ” commie” anymore than your dad is a ” racist” for their viewpoints, right?

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