Lately I’ve spent quite a bit of time online engaging in political debates and arguments. The more time I spend on it, the more I find that the arguments themselves are structured… wrong.  Many people have suggested that debating political issues is pointless, as nobody ever changes their mind, but frankly, that simply isn’t true.  I was raised in a very conservative environment, to believe some very conservative things.  I am now, however, quite liberal.  But most of the time, when somebody engages in a debate, at least, in a public setting, the point of the debate isn’t to sway opinion or to examine ideas, it’s to insult the people who disagree with you and leave feeling that you aren’t simply right, but are in fact superior to the people on the other side of the argument.

To be clear, I’d like to admit that I have done all of the things that I am critiquing, to one degree or another.  I am not saying that people who have made these mistakes are bad, simply that they are not engaging in an effective debate, they are simply arguing.

Based on that, I’d like to point out a couple of things that I think are necessary for any kind of valid debate to occur.  This is not a comprehensive list, these are just a couple of things that I’ve seen ignored time and time again.

If you want to engage in a legitimate debate with the goal of discovering the best answer to a particular question, and wherein somebody may find their opinion shifted, these are a few things that should occur.

  1.  All participants need to take the time to understand exactly what the other side believes regarding
    1. How things should work
    2. What is currently preventing things from working
    3. How these problems should be fixed
  2. All participants need the right to answer with ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t have that information on me,’ to a particular question.  We are not experts on the matter being debated.  We did not prepare for this by gathering together studies and making sure we could cite every source immediately.
  3. True debate should include honest questions: ‘but doesn’t that argument conflate legality with morality?  For example, if you are arguing that there are not laws in place which make it impossible to legally hide money offshore, means that it is alright to do so, wouldn’t it also follow that congress having the ability to make it legal for special interest groups to pay them, means that it is morally acceptable for them to do so?  And if not, how so?’  This is something that is valid within a debate.  “Oh, and I guess that it’s just fine that congress gets legal bribes, because there isn’t a law against them doing it.”  is not.
  4. You must be willing to concede mistakes, whether small or large, if you are going to expect the other person to concede mistakes of their own.  And yes, you are going to make mistakes.  It may not be a mistake that means that your belief is invalid and they win, but you have to be willing to acknowledge when you are wrong about something.
  5. Understanding what your basic assumptions are.

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