“Reasonable men can disagree. Truly reasonable men can agree about why they disagree.”
By DARREN McCORMICK
All else being equal, do you agree that a civil discussion is preferable to a heated one?
Do you agree that discussion of any kind is preferable to physical violence? Despite the current political climate of divisiveness and tribalism, I would wager that most Americans agree that civility is preferable.
But civility does not guarantee a productive conversation. I have seen too many high-profile, formal, debates where the debaters talk past each other without addressing each other’s arguments. I have seen too many politicians get away with dodging the question. High-stakes debates likely encourage the debaters to intentionally talk past each other, leaving both their opponent and her arguments behind, as a tactic to convince the audience. However, in informal debates, such as the kind that might occur at a Thanksgiving dinner between extended family members, talking past each other is divisive.
We should do better if we can.
In response, I am attempting to create a new debate format that relies on the principle of generosity and proceeds only by agreement between the debaters. The goal is to make our civil conversations more productive. It’s a work in progress that I call Debate by Agreement.
Editor’s note: Counter positions were taken by the writer to explicate the format. They are not personal endorsements.
Fundamentally, Debate By Agreement is an attempt to synthesize two competing arguments. It requires cooperation, giving the benefit of the doubt, using the principle of generosity, and taking an argument on its own terms. It is not a tactic for winning an argument. It is not for convincing the audience. It is about making progress with one particular person by joining them inside their arguments. If successful, both parties, and any audience present, know where and why their opinions diverge. If very successful, the parties agree on the type of evidence needed to resolve the disagreement. And if super successful, one party changes their mind.
To explain Debate by Agreement, consider an analogy of a vertical zipper, like the one on the front of a jacket. Two people who cannot find any common ground are like two sides of a zipper that are entirely disconnected. Two people who perfectly agree are like a zipper that has been sealed all the way to the top. More often than not, we agree on some things but not others, like a partially zipped zipper. To achieve greater agreement, we need to slide the zipper tab upwards, building on a basis of shared opinions and reconciling our disagreements as we go. To do this, we need know where and why our opinions diverge.
Here is the general method for practicing Debate by Agreement. Only move the conversation forward, or introduce new points, after agreeing about where the two of you stand on previous points. Agreements give us both a starting place for discussion and a tool to leverage against the arguments of our opponent should they contradict themselves. Neither party may use any arguments with which their interlocutor disagrees. A majority of the sentences used should begin with, “Do you agree that… ” or “Do you disagree that…”
In this way, one only needs to use a single sentence to both make a point and illicit the other person’s opinion on that point. Get them to join you inside your argument by asking, at each step, whether they agree or disagree. If they disagree, find out why. The goal should be to agree on where and why our opinions diverge.
Let’s examine a few examples of informal disagreements to get a better idea of how to find common ground. Consider a perfectly articulate wild bear that just stated her intentions to eat you. You may care about the well being of all creatures, but the bear may not. In short, you likely have different goals. A disagreement of this sort is so fundamental that your best option is probably a physical response, not a verbal one.
Consider a more common example: a disagreement between a white nationalist and an advocate for open borders. The white nationalist may claim that their goal is the success of white folks and the extermination of non-whites, in which case their goals are so different as to prevent productive civil discussion.
However, if the white nationalist is primarily motivated by a concern for the well being of the United States as a nation-state, then the two people may have a goal in common. A rational and civil discussion may actually be possible between these two people. Should the white supremacist make the latter claim, then their interlocutor would be wise to meet them in the common ground and use it to further a discussion of whether their methods accomplish the goal.
Should they find an agreed upon measure of the health of the United States, then they can compare methods of achieving that shared measure of well being. We might ask either side of the debate, “How do you think a particular method or policy will make the US better?” In other words, “What is your prediction?”
For another example, consider a disagreement between a person in favor of burning fossil fuels and one opposed. It is possible that the pro-fossil fuel person believes global warming would be a problem if it were happening, but that it isn’t. It is also possible that they believe global warming is happening, but that it is a good thing. Or they might believe that global warming is happening, is also bad, but that fossil fuels have nothing to do with causing it. Each one of these hypothetical positions requires a different type of evidence to refute. Unless we join the advocate for fossil fuel use in their own argument, we won’t know what it takes to convince them.
Finally, consider a disagreement over whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza. debate-by-agreement cannot help us here. Though both parties share a goal, enjoying pizza, there is no way to resolve differences of preference via agreement.
As a disclaimer, it is not always possible to reconcile differing opinions, and there are times when it is dangerous to even try. But as long as people are civil, don’t be too quick to conclude that a disagreement is irreconcilable. Remember that there is no one with whom we perfectly agree, and almost no one with whom we have no agreement whatsoever.
Thankfully, most humans share the goal of a just and healthy society, even if we do differ on what constitutes such a society and how best to create it. Debate by Agreement is a tool for encouraging progress in civil discourse between people of relatively equal reasoning ability. (If you are interested in engaging people with weaker reasoning and debate skills, check out Street Epistemology.)
Even with well-intended parties, it is not always possible to make progress, such as when differing opinions are based on differing predictions that cannot be tested. Even so, knowing where and why we disagree is still an improvement from feeling completely divided.
Hopefully, Debate by Agreement will help us realize what a combative argument would obscure: that most of us have far more common ground than disagreement. In other words, that the zipper is more than halfway zipped.
P.S. – I have been hitting the streets of the neighborhood, mainly Mississippi Ave, asking people for 5-minute interviews and attempting to use / refine debate-by-agreement. Special thanks to Wolff, Julie, and Aiden who were kind enough to give me some of their time. If you are interested in having a short debate or conversation to help develop debate-by-agreement, please contact Andrew Wilkins at Village Portland.
I’ll be back out on the street soon, with a white board looking for 5-minute guinea pigs. Maybe I’ll see you out there!
Darren McCormick is an amateur philosopher applying to masters programs in political science. When not giving kids chess lessons, he examines local practices and governance through a lens of political theory.