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The dysfunction of the debating mindset illustrated

I have written before about the dysfunction of the debating mindset. Nothing illustrates it better than the annual assembly of debating societies in Germany. Luckily, I can’t speak from experience since I never attended one, but there are enough horror stories to make the point for me (German only).

This annual event clashes debaters against one another without the constraining rules of a competition. That means there are still competing positions and interests but no judges to determine a winner. The outcome is as predictable as it is bad:

  • People make arguments instead of allies. 
  • People try to find flaws in the other person’s arguments instead of common ground.
  • People become defensive instead of admitting mistakes.
  • People try to win instead of looking for compromise, accommodation, or outcomes that let others save face.

All of this is of course exacerbated by the small stakes of the whole affair. After the dust has settled, everybody is intensely frustrated, relationships are strained if not broken, and little is accomplished – despite hours invested.

Dale Carnegie said it best: “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph.” 

A community that teaches its members how to “win” arguments, and determines status accordingly, won’t have many people who can win friends and influence people. How ironic.

Now, I don’t want to seem like I stand above all of this. I fall prey to these very same patterns in other situations. It took me many years to realize this and I am still working to overcome these shortcomings. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution for the debating community. Truly solving this problem would require changing the core of the activity. Hopefully, awareness on the part of the community members will still go some way in addressing it.

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