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Politics

What are debates for?

For some reason, instead of sitting down to nut out solutions to problems, we run debates.

The essential problem with debates is that they start from a position that the issue being discussed only has two sides, and that they are fixed in their stance on the issue. That conveys the idea that there is only two possible ways of looking at the issue, and that one is better than the other, so that the one that loses the debate is no longer a candidate for consideration.

This might work for a situation where the choice is whether to do something or not, but it avoids the possibility that there may be a range of grey levels between the two choices, and the time might be better spent discussing those, but the format doesn't allow for that at all. However, a debate might provide reasons to veto the whole idea.

Another big issue with debates is in how they are evaluated. Generally, a debate is rated based upon the merits of the delivery of the arguments rather than the merits of the actual arguments. It then is an exercise in oratory skills rather than an attempt to be actually useful for providing guidance for what actions to take as a result. The issue is the same as when a good salesperson might persuade a person to buy an item, but is that item actually useful for them? Persuasion and utility are definitely not the same. We are inundated with goods of dubious worth to us.

For some reason, debates seem to be a forum of choice in academic institutions. Perhaps that is why they are considered out-of-touch, as in the business world, any meeting that boils down to such a two-sided debate is generally a failure. Businesses need to solve problems, and those are rarely so black and white. For learning situations in academia, a debate may be an opportunity to build a narrative and deal with counter-arguments, except that the speeches are prepared ahead, so it is not like a real-time debate, but ordered speeches. So why not just do a presentation, like in business?

The consequence of debates being considered a superior form of interaction is that it is basically used by politicians in their parliamentary houses, and in courts, with the consequent failure to generally get consensus, or even want to. Supposedly some has to win, and the other lose so that they pay costs. No wonder politicians are so combative and protective of their own party, and courts make many situations worse.

What all situations that seriously use debates actually need is consensus. That is about getting the best outcomes for those depending upon the process, but that does not necessarily mean compromise, as sometimes that most suitable outcome might be closer to one of the original options. Of course, these need participants to come with some ideas, but not a fixed agenda, as that just leads to the sort of combative posturing that debates engender.

Let's dispense with debates as they just encourage binary posturing that interferes with getting useful and fair outcomes. In academia, presentations are a better training for public speaking, and consensus negotiation teaches people to actually present ideas and counter-ideas in real-time, instead of the fakeness of debates.

To wean people off relying on debates for conveying ideas, don't listen to them on YouTube or TV, especially since they are often using some crackpots to present stupid alternate views just to create drama. We need solutions to real-world problems, not make-believe pseudo-discussions that don't actually lead to actionable outcomes. Such debates only stall doing anything about the situations or issues being debated.

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