The lost art of the debate (Editorial)

Whatever happened to civil debates? They seem to have disappeared along with the appreciation of fair and accurate information. Replaced by an era of conduct your own self-serving survey.

With businesses pursuing teamwork environments where innovation is encouraged through the consideration of a wide-range of views and ideas, HR professionals should start wondering about the ominous tone the public discussion of ideas has taken.

In the fabled time of upper-crust English manners, debates were solemn affairs conducted in the halls of revered institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, where formal rules ensured well-reasoned arguments took precedence over boorish one-upmanship.

While debating societies still exist at universities, the broadcast media has for the most-part supplanted reasoned debate with the frequently inaccurate axe-grinding of Rush Limbaugh and a plethora of radio talk-show hosts looking to make their timeslots stand out from the competition by egging on callers and guests. The notion of fair and unbiased observations has been replaced by the drive for outrage and heated emotions.

There’s little room for facts, as popular, high-paid commentators, and the special-interest pushers who populate many “news” talk shows, quote any unsubstantiated statistics or reports they can find.

It usually sounds like this: “A study by the University of Upper-lower Holland found I’m completely right on this issue.” And before it’s revealed the university has a faculty of one and works out of an Amsterdam post office box, it’s time to cut to commercial.

Other common techniques include, yelling and interrupting, insulting an opponent’s character instead of refuting a position, ignoring an opponent’s comment and launching into a tirade on an unconnected point, yelling and interrupting, distorting facts or just plain making things up, and yelling and interrupting. Delivering an insult with an in-your-face smirk is also popular.

This is all pretty far from the debating rules published by the National Parliamentary Debate Association, which sponsors intercollegiate debates across Canada and the United States. The association states: “At any time during the debate, a debater may rise to a point of privilege when he or she believes that an opponent has personally insulted one of the debaters, has made an offensive or tasteless comment or has grievously misconstrued another’s words or arguments.”

Enforcing such rules would take the majority of television and radio shows discussing current issues off the air.

The heated airwaves are also polarizing society. Ideas are seen as right or left wing and accordingly dismissed depending on one’s own political leaning. Can’t a right-winger be pro-environment (the real kind, not a conservative politician pretending to be environment-friendly.) Can’t someone from the left be against liberal immigration laws? Talk-show guests are picked to represent opposing right and left views, as if there is a cookie-cutter ideological response for every issue.

Injecting reasoned debate into the broadcast picture is a tall order, but unless society is going to start expecting civil public debates, how can businesses expect such behaviour to manifest itself in the workplace.

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