How to balance debate between understanding and disagreement so that learning actually takes place.
Humanists love to debate. It is an opportunity to flex our mind muscles and to learn and think more rigorously. When done right, debate is an opportunity for us to learn and to think different and to perhaps even change our minds.
All too often, debate is used as a tool of anger and frustration. This is especially true when the stakes are high as they are when we debate public policy. Instead of debate, what we get is arguments for and against that are not designed to enlighten but to persuade and win. This is why so many people choose to demonize people who disagree with them. It is easier to consider your debate opponent as inhumane than to concede they might have a valid point.
When discussing this difficulty in an online class I recently taught, one of the students, Phillip said the following, “To accept yet dissuade... Delicate politics I yet still learn! While I try to understand all it is sometimes difficult to know how others come to understand or exactly what background led to their beliefs.”
Despite my professed desire as a Humanist to not make assumptions about the motives of other people, I still fail at this at times. There is the ideal about how I should act and the reality of how I do when challenged or frustrated. The question is how we can respond to disagreement in a way that is consistent with our ideals. How can we habitualize rational debate and disagreement without letting our egos get the better of us?
Personal experience and research shows us that understanding and accepting that the person you disagree with has reasons for holding the views they do helps us focus on them as individuals rather than on the points they are trying to make. The benefit to this approach is that it helps us focus on the real problem this person is concerned with as opposed to the superficial issues they are actually debating. When we make it our responsibility to find out what those reasons are, we at least fulfill our obligation to learn from debate even if our opponent does not.
Accepting that you can’t force people to change their minds, allow you to focus on whether or not you are learning from the debate as you should be.
Do you have any stories about a debate or disagreement that changed the tone and nature of the debate simply because you stepped back from your ego? Please share if you do.