I recently read an article (shared by Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism’s Facebook page) entitled “5 Tips to Win Any Debate” , written by Justin Hartfield and M. Harrison of the Prometheus Institute. PI is a public policy organization that has been labeled as extremist and right-wing by some, though the little information I have garnered from them was excellent. This just goes to show you that good information can come from many sources, including from those that you don’t necessarily agree with.
I wanted to share the main points of this article, mainly because I have seen an unprecedented amount of petty name-calling, mud-slinging, trash talking and just plain childishness in the online forums lately from Yahoo to Facebook to Youtube and the television tube. And it’s coming from all sides of the argument. If you are an atheist and find yourself debating a Christian, for example, the discussion should never have to devolve into disrespect, and letting it do so reflects poorly on our cause and simply corroborates negative stereotypes of non-believers.
If you find yourself in any debate, follow these 5 rules from the article, and you will be successful in demonstrating your point:
1) Always Respect Your Opponent. The fact is, you will never convince your opponent that their position is wrong and yours is right. If you make that your goal from the onset, not only will you fail, you will waste a golden opportunity. This is true especially if you have an audience witnessing the argument, whether they are in person or reading your conversation silently online. It is THESE people, the moderates, the ones with doubts, the skeptics…these are the people you are trying to educate and set an example for. And if your opponent resorts to an ad hominem argument, attacking your position by insulting your personal character, resist the urge to attack them personally. Relax and realize that you have basically already won the argument, since they have exhausted all other points and now show desperation in attacking you. If you refuse to engage in childish bickering and choose to be the more mature opponent, your audience will take notice.
2) Find Common Ground, And Stake A Claim On It. “You should make every effort to base your arguments off of commonly-shared viewpoints. This not only persuades a greater number of your audience, but also damages your opponents’ arguments more severely.” As the article explains, this is one of the most under-utilized techniques in the political culture today. “Socialists accuse free market supporters of hating poor people, and affirmative action opponents of hating minorities. Likewise, conservatives accuse decriminalization supporters of subsidizing pothead losers, and opponents of censorship as being pro-immorality. The list could go on.
“Instead of becoming enraged, or disregarding your opponent as a crackpot idiot, you should make your opponent look foolish by showing yourself to be aware of the same concerns that he is. Free-market proponents should make strides to explain how economic growth benefits the poor, affirmative action opponents should explain how the discriminatory policy actually hurts minorities, and decriminalization supports should explain how they support the rights of productive citizens, and not potheads. Finding common ground enhances your persuasive power. Your audience is more likely to agree with your reasoning when it is based off of commonly-held beliefs, and your opponent will be categorically denied the ability to accuse you of not caring.”
3) Concede Well-Reasoned Points. From the article: “There are generally two methods by which you can challenge an argument. First is by challenging its logical structure, either by its premises, conclusions, or use of various logical fallacies. This is effective when you are debating people like your local college student who sputters nothing but arguments dripping with fallacious reasoning. However, when you are debating more well-reasoned individuals, as you should be doing, you may need to apply the second technique, which is to concede a point yet offer a stronger alternative.
“Many issues in public policy have intelligent positions on both sides, and you will need to offer a compelling case why your position is more relevant and beneficial than your opponent’s. If your points are argued well enough, they should be able to stand down any of your opponent’s points, even without directly attacking his. Such concessions not only fail to hurt you, but they also improve your standing in the eyes of your audience. It is a skilled debater who can graciously concede his opponent’s point without skipping a beat. It will be impossible to be prepared for every argument your opponent makes. He will surely cite some obscure statistic or random study, or even make an a priori argument you’ve never heard. Rather than accuse him of being a liar, you can confidently reply, ‘Even if that were true, it still doesn’t change the reality that…’ [and then state your position].”
4) Don’t Confuse Passion With Hatred. “It is easy to agree with the first point about respecting one’s opponent. The easiest way to respect someone’s viewpoint that you disagree with is to shut up and not say anything about it. But debating is necessary for the health of American democracy, and those in a debate might likewise find it difficult to passionately advocate a position without seeming too harsh on its supporters. Your denunciation of your opponent’s position should be as passionate as necessary, as long as it doesn’t denounce the person directly. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the stupidity or ignorance of a policy, especially if you can prove it. Respecting your opponent does not mean respecting what he believes or what he promotes.”
Keep it positive, people.
5) Sometimes The Best Debating Technique Is Not To Debate At All. Let’s face it. There are just some situations where you should shut the hell up and keep your opinions to yourself. Situations where, even if you are engaged by an opponent, you should refuse to debate. This mainly includes situations where it is more important to show solidarity, compassion, and teamwork, rather than to be divisive. Such settings include the workplace, weddings, funerals, public functions, social engagements where it would be inappropriate, and (lol) first dates.
So there you have it. As you can see, the main theme of this article is that you should maintain respect for your opponent in any argument, and remember that it is not really your opponent that you are trying to convince, but those listening in silence all around you, waiting to see how you will handle yourself. Keep them in mind before you fly off the handle, and remember to approach all situations with wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion.
Now go save the world.