How To Detoxify The Way We Debate And Respectfully Disagree

graphic with hand and marker writing the word "debate"

by Paul Hamlin


Today’s political environment is corrosive and toxic.  There can be no question of that.  We are often motivated by fear and anger when we approach anyone that has a different opinion than we do.  We have allowed this anger and fear to create severe division and allowed the political parties to capitalize on those emotions and drive us further and further apart.  We have become so attached to our fear and anger that we have stoppered our ears to the arguments of others and worse, we have hardened our hearts to other people.

movie still from "Anger Management"

Do we have the right to be angry?  Sure, we should be angry about certain things.  We should be upset about those things that are contrary to our principles or to the principles of the foundation of this country.  Should we allow that anger to drive our debate? No – when we allow anger to drive debate we are stopping discussion and ensuring that no solutions are found.  We create distaste for the person who opposes us and they despise us, so there is no middle ground on any topic.  We just don’t trust each other anymore.

The question that I have been pondering than is “How should we debate in this nation?”  I have come up with the following guidelines, but by no means are they canon, and there is definitely room for improvement, as long as that improvement involves decency and civility.

CLEAR YOUR BIAS

Too many times we formulate opinions based on false narratives.  These ideas come from family members, friends, political candidates or political parties that we often identify kindred feelings with.  Because these sources feel reliable and trustworthy we blindly repeat and follow their opinion.

If we want to change the discussion, if we want the debate to improve it will be imperative that it starts with us, with those of us reading this or those that feel like there has to be a better way.  We must learn to avoid the predetermined and often harmful hyperbole and rhetoric of these preformed opinions.  We must take the step to NOT believe everything that people tell us, just because it fits into our political beliefs or bias.

This ability to approach a topic without bias, free from dogma, will allow a much clearer argument…and a much more profound result from our own research.  We must try to clear our preconceived ideas and approach our opinion in a thoughtful and balanced manner.  This allows us to approach topics and ideas fairly, no matter who says it.

This also forces us to free ourselves of blinding emotion before we research.

RESEARCH YOUR TOPIC

image of computer keyboard with a red key named "Research"

It is so important in today’s world of “fake news” and “false information”, that we never simply trust someone else’s research.  We must make efforts to avoid these “fake news” sources, these bias in the media, memes and biased sources.

Our research allows our opinions to be built and based on something other than our personal bias or our political persuasion, it forces us to challenge the political parties or candidates to think outside the box they are constructing for us.  If we are so attached to our political bias that we fear research, we do a disservice to the debate as a whole.

In order to find truth and remove bias here are some helpful hints for your research:

  • If you are forming an opinion on an original document, (a bill, a law, a historical document, or an article) read the entire original work. It is next to impossible to form opinions without reading the artifact that you are arguing about.
  • Use more than one source. Today, we know that there is too much “fake” or biased “news” to simply trust the source. If you can find additional sources to support the original, or to verify the original it adds value and validity. Multiple sources also allow you to form an opinion not based on the word of one person, but with multiple sources you gain insight into other arguments.
  • Avoid extreme or unreliable sources. Check to make sure that the sources that you are using to find truth is not guilty of bending the truth in the past.  Check to see from what perspective or bias the source views the argument.  Check to ensure that you are not using sources that will negate or devalue your argument.  In the world we live in there are extreme bias in articles on the internet, these sources are not and should not be the foundation of your argument.
  • Memes are not research. Memes are often used for humor or to spread false narratives.  If you use them as the foundation of your argument you are spreading false information, and you may be harming your overall argument.  If you feel the need to rely on a meme, you are relying on emotion because no full argument can be summed up with a pithy trite statement and a picture.

FORMULATE YOUR OPINION

image of lab worker with gloves and holding a beaker with a chemical formulation

This is a novel concept, DO NOT formulate your opinion until you have researched the topic in question.

This approach will ensure that you have at least attempted to maintain an open mind in the debate.

With the strength of your research you will have a firm understanding of the truth, and you will be able to form an argument about the topic…or if you are uncertain, it will allow you to not make an argument at all.

Sometimes the best argument is to remain silent.  (You do not need an opinion about every topic).

A well-researched argument is much more difficult to refute and will at least allow for open dialogue about the merit of the debate, not the emotion.

The largest challenge when forming an opinion based on research may be to overcome your natural inclination to force the research into your desired outcome or political perspective. If you can overcome this inclination, your opinion will be much more meaningful and more sincere.  If you find yourself trying to bend your research to meet your preconceived notions your argument will be emotionally driven, not intellectually driven.

DISCUSS YOUR OPINION

a group of students discussing subject matter

This is not a debate. This is an honest dialogue with someone you trust to “bounce ideas off of”.  In this approach you are NOT looking to be “right” you are looking for someone you trust to tell you the strengths and flaws of your opinion.  This is an opportunity to check the validity of your argument.

This is also your chance to ask questions of one another, to look at the topic deeper.  Challenge your research, look at the topic from a new perspective.  This is more about listening than talking, hear the objections and answer concerns and questions.  Remember that in this discussion you are not trying to change anyone’s mind, you are seeking truth together, and there should be no room to take offense with one another.

Sometimes we get so caught up with the immediacy of the moment that we miss this opportunity…we forget to ask questions and we may actually be damaging the debate because we have not thought it through completely.  This step also ensure that we are not being hostile, because we asked.

REFINE YOUR OPINION

Based on your conversation, did you learn something new?  Did you change your approach?  Did it strengthen or weaken your opinion?  Did you realize that you missed something in your research?  (Back to the research phase)

Since your dialogue was open and honest, you should be able to change your opinion or your approach, you did not commit yourself to a firm position.  The conversation should have strengthened you, made you better.  The dialogue has created a much better understanding of the topic and the way others will see it.  This has allowed for honest reflection.

DELIVER YOUR OPINION

image of man speaking in a conference

Finally, you have reached a position where you can write or speak about your opinion in a truly public forum.  Before you deliver your opinion, start with the assumption that not everyone is going to think exactly like you.  This assumption allows you to not overreact when someone does disagree, since you started from that point.

Next, when someone does disagree with you, listen to their opinion (trust your research and your well thought out argument).  Do not gloss over their opinion or marginalize them.  Allow them the opportunity to disagree.

When someone disagrees rely on your research, not your bias or emotional attachment to the argument. The strength of debate should be in the research, your argument or opinion…not in theatrics.

Never allow disagreement to turn to anger, hate or vitriol.  Remember the value of the person opposite you in a debate.

If the person opposite you loses decency, do not engage in like behavior.  If necessary, walk away.  Your argument will not impact or change the mind of a person who wishes to engage emotionally or with bias, they are not looking for debate…they are looking to argue.  Indecency in kind will not change the conversation, but it will cheapen you.

REFINE YOUR OPINION – RINSE AND REPEAT

Every debate is an opportunity to refine your opinion.  If you approach every discussion as an opportunity to learn something new, you will have plenty of research to complete after every discussion.  New research may actually persuade you to adjust your opinion.

We owe it to ourselves to constantly evaluate and process our opinions.

 TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW

We must rephrase the way we debate, we must mold the forum and the attitude of the debates in this nation. When we constantly look at others and expect them to change we will fail.  When we look at the way others are debating with hate and anger and return the same type of rhetoric we are failing.

Nothing will change unless we are agents of change.  Nothing in our political world will become decent if we are so willing and quick to debase ourselves in response and become uncivil as well.  When you enter into debate with someone, you control the behavior and approach of only one person, yourself.  If you want decent debate it starts with you and ends with you.

The equation is pretty simple, preparation and decency, means a return to a system where we can discuss topics and find solutions.

 

(Paul Hamlin is running for US House of Representatives as an independent candidate in New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District.  You can find out more about him and his candidacy at paulhamlin.com)

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