Years ago, as a High School teacher, I had the opportunity to teach and coach debate. It’s a pretty civilized, rule-governed verbal team and individual sport. The goal, often misunderstood and misrepresented, is not to change anybody’s mind – but to express the point of view one is assigned as fully, as accurately and as convincingly as is possible. Somehow, the word ‘debate’ has come to connote a competition of ideas with the winner being measured according to how many minds the debater succeeds in changing among those listening. Hogwash! Short of torture or mind-altering psychopharmacology or surgery, my contention is that no one ever gets their mind changed – unless and until they want it to be.
Yes, people attend debates, including those well publicized forums where candidates for political office share a stage with other candidates to present their views and ‘debate’ each other. I suspect that people who come to the debate favoring Candidate “A” will leave the room feeling that the points made by Candidate “A” support their own good decision to support that particular candidate. Likewise, those who begin as supporters of Candidate “B” are most apt to go home feeling even more strongly about their support for their already chosen favorite. The experience is nearly ubiquitous – though I will always agree that there are exceptions to nearly everything. There is probably a small group of people who have actually had their minds changed by something they heard during a debate – but I imagine that to be a proportionately very small group. People show up, more often, to hear ‘their’ candidate speak and to have their support for them further bolstered by seeing and hearing them personally.
This situation is not unique to political debates, or even to verbal arguments of any kind. It is a function of the fully subjective nature of human experience. Two people look at the same thing. Do they see the same thing? Probably not. What ‘blue’ means to you may not mean ‘blue’ to me. What one person might experience as violent or aberrant, another might simply accept as normative. So it is with debates. We hear what we hear because we are the one hearing it. Each of our senses – sight, hearing, touch and taste are unique to our own experiences and interpretations. Thus it is, of course, with our style of reasoning and the quality of our thoughts.
With this in mind, bringing someone to a debate with the hopes that their mind, already made up, will be changed is a silly notion. As silly, perhaps, as arguing any political point with someone who holds a different political point of view. No one’s mind is apt to be changed. So, I suggest that we either 1)relegate that which we call ‘debate’ to a form of entertainment, not unlike WWF wrestling except that the predetermined outcome pertains to the audience members rather than to those in the ring/ on the stage; Although a polite audience may go through the motions of listening to opposing points of view, or 2) stop calling these exercises debates and call them something more honest, like “Candidates Talk At Each Other And Don’t Change Anybody’s Thinking or Opinion.” I guess that’s way too long. Maybe a shortened characterization would handle it just as well …. Maybe, simply “Hogwash.”