Time to have a debate about debate

Debates are in the news. Trump and Clinton mark III takes place on Wed 19th October, and literally anything could happen after the appalling and unstatesmanlike name-calling of the first two encounters. We have just recovered from the tedium of several rounds of Jeremy Corbyn vs……what was the guy’s name now?

Momentum against what used to be called the Labour Party is the modern day version of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

It is hard to recall any political debate that was worse argued and more incompetently – and what is worse, more foolishly – conducted than Leave vs Remain. It is poetic justice (though tragic for the country) that the most inept and poorly argued case lost, from a virtually impregnable position. The fiasco robbed a pretty successful Prime Minister and half his Cabinet of their careers, just a year after a spectacular election victory. Debating debacles can be exceedingly costly.

I am sure there was some debating during the post-Farage farrago in UKIP’s lala land, but the eventual winner Diane James refused to participate, was elected anyway, and then resigned after 18 days.

PMQs have become a pointless exercise, as has so much of what passes as debate in the Commons. In fairness the superannuated politicians in the Lords perform with marginally more grace and style.

We’ve watched Kerry vs Lavrov snapping at each other in the UN while Aleppo burned. Question Time goes out every Thursday with a panel of five making predictable statements until Dimbleby major throws the subject open to the man in the red cardigan in the back row. Meanwhile brother Jonathan goes through a similar routine on Any Questions. Interviewers and presenters on Radio 4 and 5 Live practise bear-baiting on their prey, or conduct meaningless dialogues with contrapuntally opposed duos who will never agree about anything.

Unreasonableness has been institutionalised – even in company conference rooms. Bad manners, adversarial behaviour, interrupting, talking over and shouting down appear to have become the default setting. Courtesy, empathy, and civilised discussion are just so yesterday. And what is the point of it all? Is there any sense in which people argue and berate to convince each other? Or is it simply warfare with words – endless salvos of incoming rockets from both sides?

Have we simply to agree that it is a very disputatious age, and there’s nothing we can do about it? Are we permanently stuck with long faces and angry expressions? Should debate be all versus all? Or organised – officially or otherwise in parties, like a verbal equivalent of British Bulldog? Is collaborative and considerate behaviour an option any more? Is it even worth listening to what the other side is saying, if all you are going to do is adopt the even-handed approach of a Kim Jong-Un or the charming President Duterte in the hapless Philippines (how on earth did they come to elect him?).

At school, I loved the Debating Society. Once I’d worked out that international honours were unlikely to come my way at any known sport, I really got stuck into regular jousting with my most articulate rivals. And do you know how I learned to debate? It was from the rule that at every second meeting of the Society we had to either propose or second a motion that we didn’t personally agree with. That taught me, to do the research, to prepare, and to anticipate what the other side would say. It was like chess in words – wonderfully civilised, fun to do, and entertaining to listen to.

I think there’s a lesson here. Less passion leads to better argumentation.

The more keenly you listen, the better you can respond. Wit wins over sarcasm – brains over brawn. Objective analysis beats raw subjectivity. Civilised debate actually has the quiet power to convince and convert – in a way that hectoring and bullying tactics almost never will.
This is David’s Marketing Society blog for the month of October. Read more at https://www.marketingsociety.com/the-library/time-have-debate-about-debate#Fh1JPTd4vaudcJPa.99