How to practice civil disagreement

Debaters use persuasivearguments to disagree with one another. Their success depends on making the mostcompelling arguments--irrespective of whether a judge actually agrees with their positions. In real life, we generally believe that our arguments are successful only when we change the other person's mind. Madeline L'Engle, author of "A Wrinkle In Time," gives this example:
One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said. "But Daddy, you don't understand." And my husband said, reasonably, "It's not that I don't understand, Bion. It's just that I don't agree with you."
To which the little boy replied hotly, "If you don't agree with me, you don't understand."
I think we all feel that way, but it takes a child to admit it.
Debaters know that their arguments become stronger when they understand their opponent's position so well that they can argue it themselves! In these days of volatile discussions and angry rhetoric, it's more important than ever to practice and teach civil disagreement. Civil disagreement is more than agreeing to disagree or being polite during an argument. It's taking steps to turn a disagreement into a discussion, with a willingness to listen and a genuine effort to understand opposing positions.
In his speech, " The Dying Art of Disagreement," journalist Brent Stevens offered this insight:
"To disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say."
So, how do we practice the lofty ideals of civil disagreement, let alone teach them? Grappling with this challenge is an ongoing process, but here are three starting points that we at DebateAble try to follow and share with our debaters.
  • Watch your tone! For an argument to be heard, we need to first encourage the other person to listen to us. How we say something is as important as what we say, and our tone should engage and respect the listener whether in formal debate or informal argument. Condescending or belittling is a good way to get any listener to stop paying attention and take your argument less seriously.
  • Be active listeners. This means we pay attention when the other person is talking. It means asking questions, not just to point out inconsistencies in the their argument but to better understand their position. It includes actually taking the time to listen and process what's being said before we tune out to think about our response.
  • Assume the best in the other person. This is the hardest one of all. I don't think anyone can do this in every argument, but I agree with Stevens' assertion that when we start with empathy and an effort to believe the good will of the other person, we can better focus on their position instead of trying to discern their motives.
Does civil disagreement require tolerating intolerance or personal attacks? No, it does not (although the paradox of tolerance is a concept way bigger than this newsletter.) It does, however, ask us to strive to understand opposing ideas and acknowledge that the only way we can do this is to listen well, with respect and open mindedness.

As Stevens summarized, the first steps are simply to "shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak."


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