BY ED CHURCH (August 2020)

We live in a shouty world, don’t we? One where the volume on public discourse seems stuck on Max, the media act as fight promoters, and we are encouraged to spend our days at constant loggerheads with one another. I’ve been even more aware of this since re-joining social media recently – a place where friction is the endlessly renewable fuel source. And, somewhere among this simmering conflict that forms the backdrop to our modern lives, I see a rather sad little detail – the pugilistic art of “debate” has almost completely supplanted the more pleasant pastime of “discussion”.  

The difference between the two is not something we tend to consider. Debate. Discussion. Potayto. Potahto. Plus, of course, we are conditioned from an early age to believe that “debate” can only be a good thing – jaw-jaw being better than war-war and all that. Well, yes, debate is better than war, but that’s not a particularly high bar. 

To me the difference comes down to this:

In a debate there is a winner and a loser.

In a discussion, everyone wins.

In fact, there’s a pretty easy way to know if you’ve been in a debate or a discussion. If you belatedly remember some pertinent point and think “Ooh, I must mention that next time” then you’ve probably been having a discussion. If you remember the same point and think “Damn! They would have had no comeback to that!” then chances are you’ve been having a debate.

Now, I grant you, there are parts of life where debate is required. Politicians need to debate, lawyers need to debate – professions where defeating your opponent is part of the job. But ever since modern technology gave us all a “platform” it seems we’ve been busy dividing our fellow humans into allies to be repeated and opponents to be defeated. And, if I once engaged in this stuff, I now try to give the whole shouting match a wide berth – both in the virtual and real worlds. 

Me, I like those little verbal traits that are a sign no-one cares about winning the conversation… “That’s an interesting way of looking at it”… “Fair point”… “I’d have to think about that”… The sorts of peaceable expressions of engagement that are now looked upon as weakness in our Wham Bam, with-me-or-against-me culture of megaphone debate.

“Now that’s all well and good, Ed – but how do you expect to change things if you won’t throw yourself into debate? How do you expect to have an impact on the world? To make society a better place?”

Well, fair point, ahem, but here’s something weird… My opinion has changed on many things over the years, but almost always as the result of discussion. Debate has the exact opposite effect – heels are dug in, opinions entrenched, divisions widened. So, if someone wants to make their point, to sway opinion in some big or small way, I would suggest the dying art of discussion is a pretty good start point. Which would involve turning the volume down a bit. Just so we can all hear each other.

And if you disagree, hey, that’s fine with me. I’m not going to debate you. In the words of The Dude in The Big Lebowski: “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

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