Establishing a Strong Foundation for Disputation

Posted on 4th July 2004 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

There are some things in life you can simply jump into without much preparation and simply learn through hands-on experience: dancing, socializing, many games and sports. There are other things you must learn the rules of before engaging. You don’t enter a chess match without knowing how the pieces move.

Debate should fall into this latter category, but many people treat it as though it were the former. They make fools out of themselves and often muddy up the subject for everyone else.

Don’t be one of them. Take the time to learn how to debate before entering the arena. Unfortunately, rhetoric is not something taught in public school; although, it is the single most important aspect of our government’s operation.

Here I have provided four simple steps, and accompanying sources to prepare you for the Disputation Arena. Stick to them, for we must all work from a common foundation of knowledge in order to understand one another:

1. Understand the System

Marti Carcasson “The Rhetorics of Contemporary Political Philosophy:
Toward a Grammar of American Values”

Supplementary Charts

This is, hands down, the greatest explanation of Democracy’s purpose and an overview of the competing belief systems fueling it. This is very heavy reading, so if it discourages you, please move on to the next step. You can return to this document later as your understanding grows.

2. Figure Out Where You Stand

Political Compass

A great website for self-reflection and evolving above the pundit-definitions of our political system. While pundits attempt to change the board, this website tries to keep the board in perspective. While I disagree with the layout of their board, and their political-test’s failure to quantify certain beliefs sufficiently, these are academic disagreements and you must decide which you agree with for yourself. This is still a fantastic site and a common frame of reference we can all appreciate.

3. Sharpen Your Debate Skills

Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit

Here’s the Scientist’s approach to seeking the truth out of the morass of arguments being throw at us.

The Fallacy Files

If you want to make calling someone on a fallacious argument fun, try learning some of these logical errors by their latin name. Instead of yelling “Dumbass!” yell “Argumentum ad Ignorantiam!

4. Pick Your Battles Carefully

David Brin, Ph.D. “Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society’s Benefit”

A fantastic article about why we argue and the benefits that arise from our ideological conflicts. It’s so important to remember, when we are being swamped by ideas we take issue with, that we are struggling for something positive, something that will benefit us all.

Keeping Abreast of Disputational Developments

In spite of requests to post some trustworthy left and right leaning commentators who are well-reasoned and purely academic. I cannot do this. I find it impossible to endorse any commentator with an agenda. The act of submitting weekly analysis of current events creates an inherent rush to judgment that misrepresents or unfairly characterizes the facts. I do not think it impossible to provide fair and balanced coverage, but only if the reporter lacks agenda.

That being said, here’s some sources I do not necessarily endorse, but may help you understand what’s going out there in the memetic soup:

Fact Check
A blog dedicated to explaining the sound bytes you get glimpses of in Politics for their factual accuracy.

Spin Sanity, Countering Rhetoric with Reason
A blog dedicated to revealing rhetorical abuses in mainstream political punditry for the purposes of elevating discourse. I highly recommend running searches of their extensive archives. I have linked to some in my article “The Demagogues” about the biggest abusers.

The Wilson Quarterly: “Surveying the World of Ideas”
If you are looking for fresh perspectives from a purely academic standpoint on modern and historical issues, this magazine is a great exercise in that.

The Economist
Writers for The Economist are not allowed to take credit for their articles in an attempt to keep the author honest by eliminating the potential notoriety they may gain from establishing a personality with their work. A novel idea that may contribute to the pragmatic stance of their articles.

National Communication Association
From the NCA Website: “A scholarly society and as such works to enhance the research, teaching, and service produced by its member on topics of both intellectual and social significance.

Note: At present their publications and online resources are woefully lacking.

Lying in Ponds
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

– Monty Python’s Holy Grail

This site uses a series of mathematical equations to review opinion pieces in several major newspapers and then ranks them statistically for bias. The legitimacy of such measurements is questionable, but I posted it here because in the endless debate over Liberal/Conservative bias in the media, this is the first attempt to Scientifically Quantify bias.

Preparing Yourself Mentally and Emotionally for Debate

Disputation can be an exhausting and often demoralizing, whatever your avocation.

1. Find Your Resolve

Be aware when someone is trying to suck you into his or her distorted perception of the world. Rush Limbaugh has three hours to lecture you, unchallenged, from his soundproof room. Michael Moore holds you hostage in a darkened movie theater for two hours at a time.

Be aware when you subject yourself to these pundits. Take a moment to mentally prepare yourself before hand. Remind yourself to be critical. You are an individual, with thoughts and opinions of your own. That person dictating their position to you is no authority. There are no authorities; at best there are experts in their field.

Remember that these people are no smarter than you. If you hold a college degree, you are already on equal footing or above them. If you don’t even have a High School diploma, you can still be more educated about the issues than they are. You have to stop talking to listen and learn.

2. Remain Dispassionate

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” a bumper sticker exclaims. I would argue the opposite: If you are outraged, it’s because you don’t understand the system. Outrage is merely the weak-mind’s defense against having to learn.

Remember that reasonable people can disagree without one side being immoral or buffoonish. The system is vast and complex. Recognize what you can do to affect it, accept what you can’t do, and move on.

3. Persuade the Opposition

Always remember that political debate is about persuasion. You are trying to convince others to see the validity of your views. You may not be able to bring someone over to your side completely, but you may get them to concede points, bringing them a better understanding of your view and bringing everyone closer to an ideal mean.

4. Challenge yourself

Have faith in your belief system because of its malleability. If you are wrong, you have the ability to revise and rearticulate. If the demagogue is wrong, all they have is denial.

Many people who have faith in an idea are offended by ideas that conflict with their beliefs, such as ideological zealots who becomes angry when someone proposes a conflicting idea. This emotional reaction is not an exhibition of their faith, but a symptom of their insecurity in their position.

When someone gets outraged at you, calls you names, or tells you to “f**k off!” take solace in the fact that may not have persuaded that individual, but you did decisively win the argument.

5. Responsibility to the Truth

No one is perfect and no one has a mandate on the truth. Democracy is merely a process we use to approach a consensus. The system works best when all voices are heard and issues are explored in excruciating detail.

Above all, be respectful.

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