How to Debate

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.

I watched recently some debates, particularly in Oxford but also online, regarding the ongoing conflict between the Western values and the amalgam of socialist utopian values that seem to have captured a lot of institutions in Europe and the States, values that are well-known for someone from the ex-communist East-Europe who has abundantly lived their consequences. One particular aspect of the latter values – and I am going to use the “woke” term for lack of a better word – is that the very concept of debate is discouraged or suppressed in an authoritarian mindset, since the woke ideologies are forced upon people and not proposed as an alternative option. As a result, debating a “woke” person is going to be a total failure because that person does not believe in the necessity of debating in the first place, but rather in the necessity of pressuring someone to accept what has already been decided to be true and valid, without arguments or further explanations. I know how this works because I was born in such a cultural and political system, and I became emigrant because of my profound dislike of this lack of freedom but also lack of reason.

To my utter shock, while watching the latest debates, I became aware that people no longer know how to debate an idea, how to present a viewpoint and how to defend it. There is a lack of respect and, more troublesome, a lack of verbal coherence that typically emerges from either a lack of reading practice (people do not seem to read books enough, as someone who reads a lot is generally better capable to generate coherent sentences and express coherent ideas), or some form of parasitized mind (people seem to talk about ideologies and concepts but do not fully understand them at a deeper level, proving some sort of brainwashing). So, in this article I will write some very, extremely even, basic ideas about how to debate someone. I am not a debater myself but the level of unpreparedness I witnessed (so as not to say stupidity) is at such a high level that this kind of article proves to be absolutely necessary.

The first rule in a debate is to debate the idea and not the person in front of you. By this I mean that you discuss an idea and you are not attacking a person. You do not emit ideas or opinions about the person in front of you, but about the ideas that that person is defending. It is a matter of respect not to attack the person… personally. Also, if possible, dress according to the norms of the place. If you go to Oxford for instance, in an academic environment, put a decent dress on you, don’t just enter there as eccentric as possible, as you are not there to convey a non-verbal message or make a fashion statement, but to rationally defend an idea you have chosen to defend.

A second rule in a debate is to be able to formulate your argument in a coherent way. I often see people intellectually unable to say something intelligible. My advice is simple: if you cannot speak, don’t do it! Don’t debate! Also, debates are generally rational business, so if you come with emotional arguments, the entire discussion will lead to nowhere, as your debater might choose to respect your feelings (so as not to offend you) but he/she/they will focus on what you say and not particularly on what you feel. If you feel the need to share your emotions, go to a therapist or to a priest! The audience of the debate is not particularly interested in you emotional instability or incontinence.

Now, there are several rules one can find online for debating, but I personally use the five Agreements of Don Ruiz, a rather esoteric approach that has proven effective over the years when I managed online groups and forums. I’ve previously written an article on this subject, but I share again the rules below.

1. Be impeccable with your words! This means that it is recommended to correctly construct in your mind the ideas that you will say or write. To construct correctly means both to use proper grammar (as a sign of your intellectual ability and also respect for your audience) and proper logic. Being impeccable is about the quality you provide or deliver. And it facilitates a good level of discussion.

2. Don’t take anything personally! This means not to overreact when the other debater says something that might trigger you, but politely deflect the perceived attack while asking yourself if the other is attacking you or you feel offended because you have unresolved emotional issues. Basically, this means that you must make the difference between your own projections and the possible malevolence of the person in front of you. Not becoming personal involves a high degree of self-consciousness and personal development.

3. Don’t make assumptions! This means that you need to acknowledge the fact that people have different backgrounds, different values and different definitions for normality. In a multicultural world (read globalized world), what you think is true for you might not be true for your debater. And vice-versa. So, before jumping to conclusions and assume that the other is offending you, learn to ask auxiliary or clarifying questions. Don’t assume the other is evil and don’t assume the other is stupid. And don’t assume you are the only one who is right or that your perspective is the best in a given set of circumstances or regarding a given subject. Basically, again, don’t overreact!

4. Always do your best! This means to give the maximum of yourself in a debate or aim to provide the best (and most updated) version of yourself. It also means that you should be mindful of the fact that winning a debate is not only about dry reason but also about the emotion lingering in the room after you have left.

5. Be skeptical but learn to listen! This means that you need to learn to listen before reacting. This also means that you should listen so as to understand the mechanism at the basis of your debater’s argument and not listen so as to necessarily know how to reply in the most aggressive manner and cause maximum damage to your opponent. Also, again, be mindful of the different cultural background the other in front of you might have.

In the end I would like to focus on giving feedback, as I notice that people don’t know how to do it, despite the many teambuilding sessions available in the corporate environment or on the internet. I personally use the “sandwich” feedback style, but I guess that any feedback technique is okay. So, giving feedback involves 3 obligatory steps.

1. State what bothers you, the actual situation, by describing it! For instance, if we take this article as an example, it bothered me the fact that people don’t know how to conduct a debate in the academic medium of Oxford, which is a renowned place for its intellectual proficiency.

2. Share the emotion you feel regarding the situation! In this case, my emotion is the one of anger and frustration, as there is a difference between what I expect from Oxford and what I see in reality. This anger or this frustration is significant enough so as to make me spend some time writing this article.

3. Offer a solution to the problem! In this case, I offer the solution of educating people through “one more article” about debating and feedback giving, among probably many other articles available online.

So, why teaching feedback giving? Because, as you can see now, people tend to jump to conclusions and emit swearwords instead of offering a proper feedback. Most of us, when facing a distressful situation, will say something like “F… you!” or “What an idiot!”. Often, we will not know what exactly bothers us (number 1), we will probably infer that it’s rage (number 2) although it might be displeasure, sadness (that things have evolved in such a direction) or even fear (that the world/society is falling apart), and we will have no proposed solution whatsoever (number 3), namely the creative part of the feedback (what can be done so as to improve the situation). So, I hope this feedback technique will become an automatism/default in your life, in case you didn’t know how to do it until now.

In the end, I would like you to take time to ponder on what I wrote above. It is, in my humble opinion, the only way to keep communicating verbally and not fight in a war or wars. Debating, having a dialogue, contrary to popular opinion, is something one needs to learn. It is, if you want, an art. And, at some point in history, like the one we’re in, a necessity.

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