Bo Seo, a two-time world debate champion and author, believes that our public conversations are in a state of crisis.
In his book, Good Arguments, Seo aims to foster a culture of productive conversations instead of divisive disputes, emphasizing the need for training in argumentation, the importance of format in debates, and nurturing relationships beyond differences.
He champions the idea of looking to varied and rich information sources to sustain quality debates, and believes personal experiences, like his experience living abroad, can enhance understanding and expand perspectives.
BO SEO: Hello, I'm Bo Seo. I'm a two-time world debate champion, a former coach of the Australian National and Harvard Debate teams, and the author of "Good Arguments."
NARRATOR: What inspired you to write your book, "Good Arguments?"
SEO: I was driven to write "Good Arguments" out of a concern for the state of our public conversations. It seems like every disagreement in the media, or in the public square, is a source of division and pain. Beyond that, there's a hidden crisis of people avoiding these conversations altogether, out of fear that they will be pointless or painful.
"Good Arguments" is about what democracies should do, and what they aspire to be at their best: a conversation between people who disagree, sometimes over irreconcilable things. The goal is to find areas of agreement, and points where we can work across our differences to reach better solutions.
One of the reasons our arguments are so divisive and painful currently is that we've lost the skill of disagreeing well. We no longer view argument as a skill to be honed, but something we impulsively engage in out of instinct or defensiveness. The resulting bad arguments decrease our faith in the potential of disagreements, making us approach them more defensively. This lack of faith and confidence feeds into itself, further degrading the quality of our conversations.
NARRATOR: What are some effective debate models from history?
SEO: The tradition of "Good Argument" is deeply rooted in history. It goes back to ancient Greece, where the ability to persuade others and engage in discussions was seen as a fundamental requirement of citizenship. This tradition evolved through the pubs and coffee houses of London, where citizens mirrored the debates happening in parliament. It was an integral part of the United States' founding, with many of the founding fathers starting debate clubs in colleges, viewing it as part of their role to instill a spirit of debate in the nation.
Historically, there have been periods where these debates were a central feature of people's day-to-day lives. One such example is the series of debates between civil rights leader James Farmer and Malcolm X. Although both were advocating for racial liberation, their views on how to respond to racism differed greatly. Yet, they weren't shy about voicing their disagreements publicly.
Three lessons stand out from the Farmer-Malcolm X debates. Firstly, the importance of training. Farmer was mentored by one of the great debate coaches, Melvin Tolson, while Malcolm X honed his skills through a prison debate program. Secondly, the importance of format. These debates allowed the speakers ample time to present their arguments, knowing they would get another turn after their opponent had spoken. Lastly, the importance of having a relationship that extends beyond the disagreement. Farmer and Malcolm X built a relationship outside of their public encounters, which created a foundation for more candid and honest debates.
NARRATOR: What is it about competitive debate that resonates with you most?
SEO: I started debating because of a promise my fifth-grade teacher made: in a debate, when one person speaks, no one else does. As someone who had just moved from South Korea to Australia, without speaking English, I found real-life conversation challenging. Disagreements were particularly difficult, as emotions tend to run high, and people often interrupt or change the subject. Debate gave me a platform where I could speak uninterrupted.
One of the things I learned as an outsider, who didn't speak the language and was visibly different, was to listen. I learned to read a room and gauge the atmosphere before speaking up. Many of the most successful debaters come from slightly marginal backgrounds because listening intently is as important, if not more so, than speaking in a debate. This skill, initially a way to navigate my new surroundings, became a strength. The great lesson of debate is: in order to be heard, you have to first listen.
NARRATOR: What concerns you about how we consume information?
SEO: Debates are only as good as the information and the knowledge and the skills that debaters bring to it. One of the more concerning things we see at the moment is people's information diets not being sufficiently varied, not being sufficiently rich to sustain the kinds of conversations we want to have.
The first thing is, we cannot allow the debates that we see on cable television to be a kind of a replacement for the disagreements that we should be having in our day-to-day lives. Our political leaders or our favorite media personalities can't be like avatars to whom we outsource the work of thinking for ourselves and having these conversations for ourselves.
So the first is viewing media, not as a substitution, but as a source of equipment and knowledge that we can then transfer into the kinds of conversations that we have. The second thing is, having a variety and a diversity of sources that we turn to to get our information. And one of the impulses that partisan media, siloed information sources feed off, is our desire to be validated, to have news reflect back to us what we already believe to be true about the world.
Just the way that debate encourages us to seek out differences and to see them as productive, and revelatory, and mind-expanding, we should view the different signals and information and perspectives we take in, because that richer diet allows us to see more perspectives and to challenge our own thinking more consistently.
For me, my love of debate and desire to see things from different perspectives, to if not always agree, then at least to understand the perspective from which others are coming from, is inextricably tied to a life that I've led of always moving countries. I moved from South Korea to Australia as an eight-year-old, grew up in Australia, then moved to the U.S. for college, got a postgraduate degree in China, and then came back through Australia back to the U.S.
Through each of these moves, there was a lot of work of translation and adaptation, and having to figure out where the surroundings were at before I could make a home in them. And a lot of that was information gathering, whether that be reading the news, but often in conversation with people in those locations, in those neighborhoods to figure out that most basic and difficult question, which is: Where am I? And to do that, you needed all the help that you could get, and you needed to rely on all the information sources you could get.
One of the things that I learned to do, I think, is to resist easy answers to that question- and to try and piece together from a kind of a mosaic, all the different sides of a place.
NARRATOR: How do you listen to opposing arguments?
SEO: We're used to thinking about listening as an essentially passive act, where we sit back in our chairs and take it all in. Debaters know that it's a much more active process than that. So when a speaker is speaking, a debater has paper and pen ready, and they're doing at least three things:
The first is they're trying to transcribe in as accurate, or detail what the other person is saying. Often, when you separate out your own perceptions of what this speech is versus the reality of it, you'll find that it's sometimes different.
The next thing that you're trying to do is, try and reconstruct the argument that's being presented in its most basic form. What is the real thrust of this argument? And can I put it down on the page and organize it in a way the other side would recognize as faithful to their argument?
The next thing that you're doing is, you're sometimes building up that argument into even a stronger version. So what else could the opposition have said to further their argument, to improve their argument? And through this process, you are not only listening to the words that's coming out, you're trying to reconstruct the deeper meaning behind it.
You are trying to strengthen their argument, all for the purpose of being able to engage with their case and their perspective more fully. There are two lessons that we can take away from how debaters listen, and and to try and apply it in our own lives:
The first is, it is in your best interest to understand the opposition's argument as they would understand it. It's not in your best interest to twist their meaning, or to take it at its worst, or to capture only a fraction of it, because they won't feel as though they had been listened to and heard and ultimately responded to. And unless that moment, that click and that moment of contact happens, it's not a real disagreement, it's not a real debate, it's a kind of a quarrel, or people talking across one another.
The second thing is, it's also in your best interest to respond to the strongest version of the other side, and sometimes to build up the other side's case, so that it's even better than where they have it now. The reason for that is, you know after you finish speaking, the opposition might have a light bulb and come up with a better case, or someone on their side might say, "You've responded to the weak version of this argument, but here's something better." So the further you can take it and the stronger the version of the other side you can respond to, the further ahead you pull, the more you challenge the other side to go even further, and the better the conversation becomes.
NARRATOR: What is the RISA framework you use when in a disagreement with someone?
SEO: Arguments are easy to start and hard to end because difference is the natural state of things. There are any number of differences between two people- and when one of those issues comes to the fore, you can have a disagreement.
But unless you are selective about the kinds of arguments that you pick, and unless you are careful to say, "We're having this disagreement at this moment and not all the other disagreements we could be having," all of the differences between two people can start flooding in and the argument becomes this unruly mass of conflict between two people, where any of the potential sources of conflict can come to the fore, and you're not making progress on any given one.
As a competitive debater, you become a bit enthusiastic about disagreeing and you tend to want to take on any claim that you might disagree with, and try to provide the best argument against it. And one of the frameworks that I developed in order to be a little bit more judicious, to pick my fights more wisely, is called the RISA framework.
And that is before launching into a disagreement, or challenging a claim to ask four things: First, whether the disagreement is in fact real as opposed to an imagined slight or a misunderstanding. The second is to ask whether it's important enough to you to justify the disagreement. The third is to ask whether the question, or the topic of disagreement is specific enough in order for you to make some progress. And the fourth is to ask, whether you and the other person engaged in the disagreement are aligned in your objectives for wanting to partake in that conversation.
And by checking off on these four lists, you can't guarantee that a conversation is going to go well, but you may be able to give it the best possible chance of doing so. One of the limitations of the RISA framework that I worry about is that it is increasingly difficult to find the right kind of alignment in people's interests for wanting to engage in a disagreement.
So if you have two sides that simply want to hurt one another's feelings by having an argument, that's some kind of alignment, but not the right kind that leads to productive conversations. And the place where the RISA framework can go wrong is in a world where everybody wants to engage in disagreements for bad reasons. And to combat that, I think we need to restore confidence and faith in what disagreements can be, and to highlight its potential as a source for good as well as a source for ill.
So one place where you might be able to apply the RISA framework is an event that is a source of dread for a lot of people, which is getting together with extended family for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter. And knowing that some of the personal, or political disagreements are gonna bubble up to the surface.
The RISA framework provides two sources of help in that situation. The first is, that every disagreement should start with a little bit of agreement, and that is often naming exactly what it is that you disagree about, so that it doesn't bubble up into an unruly conflict about all the different slights, and disagreements and all the different areas in which you don't see eye to eye.
So the first act is to, and the first step is to name the disagreement in front of you, and you need to do that before you can even start to apply the RISA framework. The second thing is, it may be that two people don't start with the same objectives in mind when they enter the conversation, but one of the things that you might be able to do is to check: 'Well why do you want to engage in this disagreement? And can we come to an agreement about what it is that we're hoping to get out of this conversation?'
So forcing the slightly quarrelsome family member who just wants to be a contrarian, or to cause trouble to say, "Are you really in this hoping to persuade me to change my mind, or are you really in this to hear my perspective, or a different take on these positions that you hold?" That bit of negotiation of why it is that we're in the conversation in the first instance, and that level of alignment can often allow our conversations to go better, than if we just jump into the disagreements without much forethought.
NARRATOR: How do you choose which details in an argument to respond to?
SEO: If intelligence is the ability to respond to any argument, wisdom lies in knowing which arguments to respond to, and which parts of an argument to respond to.
And debaters usually ask two questions: The first is, is a given point within the opposition's argument or case, is it necessary to challenge in order for us to resolve the overall dispute?
And if it's not, is us challenging it or disagreeing with it, going to help us make progress on the overall dispute?
So by asking whether a point that the other side is making, no matter how offensive or wrong seeming it may be, by asking whether it's first necessary to challenge, or even if it's not whether challenging it would help us make progress on the argument, you can be a little bit more judicious in how you disagree and prevent our arguments from becoming this unruly, all-encompassing dispute.
The importance of beginning a dispute with the RISA framework is that, it allows us to almost make a contract with the other side, to say, "This is what we're disagreeing about and these are the reasons why we're engaging in that dispute."
And one of the things that you can do with someone who tries to break those rules, to expand the debate into something it wasn't about, to change the topic to introduce new reasons for wanting to engage in the dispute, is just to remind ourselves of the agreement that we made, of the kind of disagreement that we want to have, and what we want to disagree about- and to bring the conversation back to those parameters.
NARRATOR: What are side-switching exercises?
SEO: So much of debate is an exercise in certainty. It's about spending sometimes weeks researching your side of the case, coming up with the best possible arguments that you can, coming up with the best lines that you can to sell the truth of your side to the listener.
But in the last moments before a debater goes on stage, they know to take a breath, to take out a new sheet of paper, and to put themselves in their opponent's shoes and write the four best arguments of the opposing side. They know also to look over their case again, this time through the eyes of someone who fervently disagrees with them, and to identify all of the flaws, and the mistakes, and the criticisms that could be leveled against them.
Debaters also know to imagine, to imagine a world in which they lost the debate and to come up with the reasons why they did. And those exercises, which are called the 'side-switch exercises,' puts a pause on that feeling of certainty. It makes us feel for a moment the subject of reasonableness of other people's beliefs. It gives us that moment where we get back on our toes and think maybe we missed something. It makes us imagine a world in which we're wrong, or at least we're judged to be wrong.
And all of that isn't humility, isn't empathy in and of itself, but it creates a wiggle room through which something like humility, or empathy might arise. I find empathy hard to practice in my day-to-day life, because I often feel as though I don't know what it is.
Sometimes it feels like a kind of a magical psychic connection that you look into the eyes of someone and then somewhere music starts playing in the background, or it feels like a virtue that some people are born with and that other people don't possess.
It was through the experience of debating that I saw a different view of empathy, which is empathy as a series of actions, which by putting yourselves in the shoes of an opponent and coming up with some arguments for their case, or by looking at yourself through the eyes of an opposition and trying to look at all the reasons why you might be wrong.
I think so many of our conversations at the moment feel like they're stuck. It's people fully convinced of their views shouting at each other from a distance. And it's a kind of a trenched warfare, where people are fully entrenched in the position that they've always held, and creating that little wiggle room for doubt, for letting in the possibility that the other side might have a couple of points in their favor and that you might have missed something- I think that's one way in which empathy comes in at a time when it's in such short supply.
The science which exercises, and the kind of empathy that debate brings into the conversation, is not only applicable in personal disagreements, but in my view, more urgently needed than ever in our political disputes, in disputes between political parties and factions and your ideological commitments. But in order for us to be able to put into practice, I think we have to remember that, each of us are bigger than our political affiliations, than our religious commitments, than our ideological beliefs. And more importantly, the other person is more than a representative of their party or their position in society, or the beliefs that they hold.
And by allowing our encounters to be larger than the affiliations that we have, that gives us the best chance I think, of being able to explore new ideas, to listen to the particular nuances of where the other person is coming from and not the categories we would place them in. And it's in that setting that exercises like side-switch become most effective. When we view the other person, and when we view ourselves in our fullness, and not merely by our membership or affiliation in groups of like-minded folks.
NARRATOR: What subjects should we not debate?
SEO: One of the hardest questions I had to grapple with in writing this book is: Are there some subjects that we simply should not debate? And the conclusion I came to is: We should draw at least one bright line, which is saying, "We should not debate the equal moral standing of persons."
And the reason for that is, the whole premise of debate. And the reason why we give people equal time in which to speak and we give them the promise of being able to speak uninterrupted, is because we say their voice is worth hearing, and their voice is worth hearing equally as that of their opponent. And so a debate about whether a certain race of people, or group of people are inferior would not be, would be antithetical to what debate stands for.
The recent attempts to shut down debates about certain topics or to de-platform speakers who have been spreading divisive and hurtful messages, seems to me, both a response to the fact that many of us have lost the ability to disagree constructively, and passionately, and humanely. But it also seems a reflection of a lack of confidence that the resulting disagreements can be anything other than a source of pain and of division.
And so one of the things that I think the skills of debate does, that the RISA framework does, that side-switching does is, it expands the scope of what we are able to talk about because it enlarges and improves and strengthens our ability to talk about contentious and difficult issues, in humane, compassionate, and productive ways.So, one of the reasons why we need the skills of debate now is at a time when there are all these pressures to shut down debate, to be able to not only talk about more things, but to do it in a way that brings in people rather than excludes them.
NARRATOR: How should we approach a social media debate?
SEO: There's a lot of literature now about, how you might be able to pull ahead in social media fights. There's wisdom about not engaging in the discussion forever, not using too many inflammatory words, so on and so on. But I tend to be a little bit more pessimistic about it. And I think in order for us to start building back the skills of good argument, we usually need to do it face to face. And we might need to do it in the absence of an audience to start with so that we resist the urge to perform for an audience, but rather listen and respond to the person across from us.
So it may well be that a better version of social media that doesn't amplify the most inflammatory material, that doesn't have anonymous contributors, that doesn't have the kind of the culture of hate and vile disagreements that we see at present. It may be that we can one day equip ourselves to engage in a better form of social media, but I tend to think the starting place has to be face to face, has to be maybe away from an audience to begin with, so that we're building one interaction at a time, the skills that we have lost.
NARRATOR: What is the psychology behind liking or disliking to argue?
SEO: The people in my life who are most quarrelsome, who are most primed to always engage in disagreements, tend to want I think two irreconcilable things: The first is often they want to be heard, and they want to have their perspective carry through and to connect with the listener. But another slightly darker desire they have is to dominate over their opponents and to show themselves superior. And the two are in conflict because the point of one is to make a connection with the other side and to have your message carry through, whereas the other is to almost leapfrog over the listener and to show yourself to be better than them.
And so I think those people are often caught, and one of the reasons why the people who are most quarrelsome who put themselves out as best at debate need to continue engaging with it, it's because they don't quite find what they're looking for- and I think what they're looking for is connection.
I've had to think a lot about conflict aversion because I myself am a pretty conflict-averse person. I used to be one, and I still feel the instinct of that despite all my years in debate. And this is something I've changed my mind about. I used to think that conflict aversion was, a lack of confidence in one's own abilities. A kind of a defensiveness to shield one's self from hurt, to protect oneself from revealing too much, or becoming too vulnerable to the other side.
And I think that is one element, but nowadays I think conflict aversion also shows a lack of confidence in the other person, in their ability to receive you with some measure of grace to respond to you kindly and to make something constructive out of the conversation you are building together. And so I think the common trait of conflict diverse folks is a lack of confidence, not only in one's own abilities, but I think more controlling, more importantly in the other person. Where the conflict-averse person and the highly combative person meet, in my view, is in their shared desire for a connection. And it's a connection that they don't get just by persisting in their most natural modes.
You can't connect if the only grounds on which you connect with another person or you reach out to another person is similarity rather than difference. And similarly, you can't connect if your whole desire is to dominate or to show yourself to be superior than the other person. So, in managing both of those personalities as a debater and as a coach-but also as, in my view, every human contains both of these instincts within them- I think the place where they meet and the middle ground where good argument stem from, is from a recognition that it's through connection with others, it's through an encounter with others that we get more than we would be able to on our own.
NARRATOR: Why are disagreements with loved ones the most painful?
SEO: Some of the most painful disagreements we come across in our day-to-day lives are with loved ones. And I think the reason for that in one word is carelessness. When it comes to those whom we're closest to, we are usually quickest to assume they should agree with us. After all, they're the people we've chosen to share our lives with. We're quickest to assume they should understand us even when we're not expressing ourselves very clearly. After all, they're the people who know us best. And the combination of all of those things is, we're least likely to think about the effort that it takes to disagree well, because we have this idea that love should be effortless.
And the great tragedy of that is, if only we love the other person a little bit less, or if we care for them a little bit less, then maybe our disagreements would be less painful. The more we care about another person, the more high stakes a disagreement feels. The closer we feel to another person, the more we think they must agree with us, and the more of our lives we share with another person, the more points of potential disagreements arise.
NARRATOR: Why is agreeing better than disagreeing?
SEO: So in this time of extreme polarization, the impulse to seek out agreement can feel pretty attractive. And this is the rhetoric of, remember there is no Red America, no Blue America, right? This is the unifying rhetoric of focusing on all of the different things that we have in common rather than the things that bring us apart- and someone might plead at this point, we're all human after all and we should focus on that.
And the force of that argument that unifying rhetoric, derives not only from what we can do when we focus on the agreement between us, but I think also from the shadow that lurks, which is disagreements can be really destructive. And so part of the appeal of that unifying logic comes from conjuring up the boogeyman of what disagreement can be.
And at least it's not that, at least we can have agreement that's a little bit thinner, maybe a little bit blander, just having to do with us being generally human, or living in the same place. But it's better than the alternative of divisive and painful disagreements.
NARRATOR: What makes rhetoric so powerful?
SEO: I think we're living at a time of real distrust of rhetoric. And when we say something is rhetoric, we mean something like, "it's mere rhetoric." Those are just empty words or you're trying to fool me in some way; you're trying to manipulate me. And the origins of that suspicion of rhetoric come right from the beginning of rhetoric as a kind of an education and a tradition. So there's a debate between Socrates and Gorgias, who's a rhetorician and a public speaker, and Socrates, accuses Gorgias essentially of practicing an art of rhetoric which is divorced from the truth, that preys on people's desire to be flattered, that preys on their kind of fickleness, and their responsiveness to emotional appeal rather than the dictates of reason.
And this view and this suspicion of rhetoric has really won out these days. When people say, "That's just rhetoric," it's a kind of an accusation, it's a putdown, it's a way to reveal a kind of a trick. And in the book I take the opposite view, that it's precisely because of our frailties, our capacity to be lazy, our capacity to be apathetic, that we need things that tug at our heartstrings and forces us to take some action. That because it takes an enormous amount of activation energy to change our minds at all, let alone to act on those changed beliefs, we need something greater than ourselves to pull us along.
Now that comes with a recognition that we're playing with mercurial elements, right? With emotion, with passion, with fellow feeling, with identifying with the speaker. But as with so many things in debate, a conversation that doesn't have these elements that make us human, is also a conversation diminished. It's a conversation that is not lifelike and that lacks some of the vastness, some of the richness that a real human conversation can provide- and to do that I think you need rhetoric.
Whenever we teach a population, a great and powerful new skill that can be used for good or for evil, we need to give them the tool to manage that new power. And that's true of whether it's nuclear physics, or whether it's a martial art, or whether it's working in weapons development.
You need to give people both the ability to harness the power for good and to prevent it from being used for bad. And I think this is true for debate too: that in a world where many people possess the tools of rhetoric, some of them will use it for evil, will use it to promote bad ends, and a population that understands both faces of rhetoric, the ways in which it can be used for good, but the ways in which it can be hijacked and abused, I think that's a population that has more immunity to demagoguery, to the abuses of rhetoric, because they're able to identify what is happening, to be able to call it out in some instances, and resist the temptation to simply go along with it uncritically.
NARRATOR: What are the three principles of rhetoric?
SEO: There are three principles from debate on using rhetoric more effectively in our disagreements: The first is proportionality, the second is personality, and the third is panache- it's the three P's.
The first is, many of the abuses of rhetoric come when the kinds of claims that we're making, or the words we're using, or the gestures we're making are out of sync with the content of the arguments; they exaggerate or they diminish, or they're out of proportion. So the first is not to overstate things, but not to understate things either, both in terms of the language that we use and in the gestures that we use. So there has to be a kind of a proportionality between the rhetoric we marshal in favor of our arguments and the arguments themselves.
The second is personality, which is bringing ourselves into our arguments a little bit more. Remember what we're trying to do is to make the audience undergo a kind of a change to end up somewhere, believing something they didn't before. And in order to do that, they have to make a kind of a journey from where they were to where they're going. And one way in which we might be able to help them undergo that journey, is by explaining how we went through that process ourselves. So people may not always know very much about, a particular issue or the truth of any given claim, but people are pretty good at judging other people. And by showing your own journey and how you got to the position and the perspective that you you're offering, that can often be very useful.
The last bit is panache, which is there is a part of rhetoric which is crafting the language, putting the right combination of words in sequence, using all the tools of voice and gesture to be able to most effectively sell that argument. Those moments of panache, or what we call in debate sometimes, are "applause lines" are important because, they signal to the listener that they are worthy of a certain kind of attention and work that we, with them in mind, put in all this time to try and make this sound as convincing as we possibly could.
NARRATOR: What is Schopenhauer's Eristic Dialectic and why is it useful?
SEO: So Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher born in the late 1700s. And in addition to all of the broad ranging contributions that he made to philosophy from aesthetics to ethics, he personally took a pretty dim view of humanity and of our situation. He said as a teenager, having experienced a lot of loss in his family, that the world must be the work of a devil who created the world so that they could relish in the suffering that people went through. And in his work as a philosopher, he was known as a very confrontational quarrelsome character who picked fights with everyone, and tried to get one up them in a debate, and in a disagreement.
And later in his life he wrote this parody document called "The Eristic Dialectic," where he offers 30 odd tactics for beating the other side at all costs. And they're tactics like interrupt, and call the other person names, or change the subject, or offer a non sequitur to confuse the other side. And the question for me and the question with any parody is: Does he believe that this is all there is? That this is all people are really capable of? Or is it a kind of a political document inspired to help us do better, to see our situation for what it is: the comic, slightly tragic mess that our disagreements can be, and to aspire to do something better?
So the rules of debate simple as they are matter, because it's what makes a conversation a debate rather than simply conflict or an exchange of insults. When we explode the rules of debate, we change what is valued and rewarded in a conversation. So in a free-for-all of the kind that Schopenhauer prepares us for, the things that are rewarded are leaving the other side speechless, or putting forward a dominant performance that gets the other side to trip up, or gets the audience to jeer and boo the opposition, so that we're not able to hear them at all. So the rules of debate are important because in order for us to reward reasoning, thinking, responding, listening, all of the things that we value and should value in conversation, we need to first set up a structure that rewards that.
The one glimmer that we see in this parody document by Schopenhauer is this notion that by understanding the tactics that bullies use, by being able to counter them, by being able to defend ourselves against them and in some ways turn some of those tactics against them, we may be able to deter them from using those tactics in the first instance. So even in this quite dark view of what disagreements can do, there's a sense that by learning a kind of 'a defense against the dark arts,' we may be able to nudge our conversations in a better direction.
NARRATOR: Why are we susceptible to 'dark art' debaters?
SEO: One of the reasons why debate is vulnerable to the manipulations of bad faith actors is that it rewards both persuasiveness, but also the perception of persuasiveness. So as an adjudicator or even as a member of the audience, you often don't know that much about the particular issues that are being debated. You may not even know about the people who are presenting the argument.
Instead, what you have is all of the body language, all of the ticks in their speech, all of the signals that you get of who's ahead and who's behind. And bullies tend to exploit that by appearing as the more dominant side, the more unshakeable side; that even when they're behind in an argument by never looking flustered, or never looking as though they're falling behind. And so the bullies tend, in my experience, to be especially attuned to the element of debate that is spectacle in addition to reason.
I think the reason why we're susceptible to those kinds of manipulations is because we're imperfect. We like to be flattered, we like to be told things we already believe, we like to feel like we're on the winning side. We like to feel like we have the protection of someone who's stronger. And some of these kinds of basal instincts, some of these kinds of insecurities that we all possess are exactly what bad faith arguers try to target and exploit.
NARRATOR: What were your thoughts on the 2016 presidential debates?
SEO: I was watching the first presidential election debates with my debate partner and we'd been, we'd received an assignment from the Atlantic Media to write a kind of a review of the two candidates' performance in the debates, and maybe to come to a judgment of which of the two sides had won. And we were busy taking notes throughout, writing all of the different tactical slip-ups, and moves that the two sides were using. But ultimately we ended up never filing that article because we didn't feel like it had been a debate at all. And so, whoever came out ahead in the audience polls about who they believed had won, in as much as it was a win, it wasn't a debate victory, because what had unfolded wasn't a debate, it was a kind of a brawl.
What was then my greatest triumph in the world of debate- which was winning the World University's Debate Championships- and what started as the absolute highlight of my years and the height of my confidence in what debate could do for a person and could do for a society, I saw that sink to a kind of a bottom when you saw the two people competing for, perhaps the most consequential office in the entire world, engaged in a kind of an unedifying spectacle that was a debate in name only. And I saw the potential for the format of debate to which I'd given much of my still short life too. I saw the potential for that format to be exploited, to be hijacked, and to be degraded.
The thing that struck me most about those debates, is how quickly a stage set up with rules, with moderators, with the values of a community that had decided to make debates a part of the democratic process, how quickly that could be turned into a kind of a brawl where there were no rules, where the only thing that mattered was the display and the spectacle of dominance over the other side, where embarrassment was the currency, or where picking oneself up always came at the expense of putting the other side down.
And for me the takeaway from that was, those darker impulses that feed into bad disagreements are, not only within the activity of debate, but they're within all of us. That just the way that we have the capacity to disagree well, we also have the capacity to disagree badly. And both those sides and both those impulses have to be managed, so that we can nudge our arguments in the direction of the good.
NARRATOR: What are the four 'debate bullies'?
SEO: Having seen how the debate format can be broken down, can be hijacked by bad faith debaters, I resolve to diagnose and list the common tactics that are used by bad faith arguers, so that we might have a hope of recognizing it when we see it in practice and responding. And I came to four common kinds of bad arguers that we see in our day-to-day lives, not only in our political lives but also around the kitchen table, in our workplaces. And the four common personas I came up with, were first 'the dodger,' second, 'the twister,' third, 'the wrangler,' and fourth, 'the liar.'
So the dodger wins by essentially changing the topic, and they usually do this by finding a pivot point. So you might say something like, we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because climate change is getting out of hand. Then they might say, "On the topic of climate change, why do you drive a four-wheel drive, right?" Or, "Why do you have a gas guzzler in your garage?" And it is a kind of a response on the same topic, but not to the point that you had raised. And so, the way in which the dodger gets ahead is when you take the bait and you start talking about your car and making defenses for yourself. And so the response to the dodger is to stay the course and to keep bringing the discussion back to the original point and highlighting that they are trying to change what the disagreement is about.
The second kind of persona is the twister, and the twister's signature move is to misrepresent the point that you are making. So if you say, "I'm opposed to increasing taxes," the twister might say, "Does that mean you have no concern for social security?" Or, "Are you so selfish that, you think there should be no limits on personal property?" And so this is a kind of a 'straw man argument' because it's not the argument you are raising, it's the one they're thrusting on you, right? And so, to respond to the twister, it's imperative to correct the record and say, "No, that's not what I'm saying," because once you get this kind of misrepresentation, you can often get into a position of arguing for something you don't believe, or at least the conversation splitting, and you not being able to connect and talk about the same issue. It can often be difficult to respond to a personality like the twister because you get a sense that something is going wrong here, or clearly they're pulling something on you but you're not sure what it is. And so one of the reasons why we need to be able to recognize things like straw man, and just have the vocabulary to be able to say that's what they're doing, is so that we're able to pause and diagnose what has gone wrong in the disagreement.
The third kind of bad arguer is called the wrangler. And this is the person for whom nothing is ever good enough. They're very good at coming up with critiques against just about everything that you're saying, but they never offer an alternative of their own. And this is a problem because your solution, or the thing you're arguing for probably isn't perfect, but so long as it's better than the alternative, which might be just doing whatever we're doing now, it still probably is the preferable solution. And so the appropriate response to the wrangler is to say, "Well, what do you believe?" In other words, to pin them to a position, so that they too have to argue in favor of something rather than always saying no.
The fourth personality and someone we see just about everywhere in our public and private discussions these days is the liar. And one of the things we know about the liar is, they usually don't tell one lie, they tell many. So that it becomes overwhelming and their opponent either doesn't know how to respond to this effluence of stuff coming out from the other side, or they waste all their time trying to respond. So the strategy against the liar, is to choose one or two representative lies that you think best exemplifies the approach that the liar is taking in a disagreement.
Then debaters do something called "plug and replace." The first is to imagine as though the opposition's claim is true, and then to explain all the problems that arise when you make that assumption. So let's imagine if what you're saying is that, immigrants cause lots of trouble when they come into a country, then how do you explain the fact that, crime rates among that community is actually lower than the rest of the population? Then you replace the lie with a truth and say, "It's in fact not true that they are kind of bad actors who cause all these problems and that explains what we know to be true about the world." And so, by plugging in the lie and then replacing it with the truth, you can demonstrate the ways in which the lie falls short and try and explain how that's symptomatic of a broader approach that the liar is taking to the debate. It's entirely impractical to try to respond to every single lie. And so it becomes important to choose one or two of the lies that are most representative. And that shows something about how the other side is approaching the disagreement. And by even naming that this is what they're doing, they're trying to overwhelm us with the volume of lies, you start to take away some of the illusion, or some of the trick by revealing how it works.
NARRATOR: Why are our differences important?
SEO: So Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, took a pretty pessimistic view, not only of disagreements but the kinds of people we become when we engage in disagreements: which is we become petty, we become defensive, we focus on people's personality. And he believed that these petty disputes can grow into a kind of a conflagration that brings down not only relationships but also nations. And this was a man who lived through periods of war, and so he saw the destructive force that arguments can be. And looking at all that damage- which I think is not dissimilar to where we are, and the kind of things that we see in the destructive capacity of disagreements- he concluded that the appropriate response was to take on a posture of civil silence towards one another. That we wouldn't engage in these disagreements, that we would, as much as possible, try to grin and bear to tolerate one another's differences and not to disagree about them overtly, lest the disagreements grow into a state of conflict that none of us can control.
I mean, Hobbes is a pretty smart guy, and so it's hard to dismiss some of these ideas too flippantly. And the honest truth is, I felt the force of that wisdom in my day-to-day life. You know, when I was feeling like, I didn't have a voice, or when I was feeling like, I was on the margins and my being, my welcomeness in a place was kind of conditional on me not causing too much trouble or rocking the boat. When I've been through periods in my life where I've felt that kind of defensiveness or vulnerability, I often did have the thought, 'It would go a lot easier if we could focus on our similarities and to minimize as much as possible, the differences.' And the problem with that is our commonalities are only one part of the fullness of our relationship with one another. And part of what makes the encounter between two people meaningful is not only all the things that they share, but the differences, and that variety is a source of challenge. It's the way in which we piece together truth from different perspectives. It's the way in which we go beyond ourselves, learn something new, reach for something new. And so, a life built just around agreement is an impoverished life because it requires taking away and ignoring so much of the richness of human relationships and the encounters they give rise to.
I see debate as one answer to a broader question, which is: How do we disagree better? And though debate is an important answer to the question, it's not the only way in which we can disagree. And in the same way, I see the question of how we disagree better as one answer to the question, what do we do about the fact that each of us is different, but that we must find ways of getting along? Disagreeing about our differences is not the only way in which we coexist and learn to navigate around our differences. We can also negotiate, we can collaborate, we can tolerate, we can let some things pass, but we can also disagree. In the same way, we can disagree by debating, but we can also do it through organizing our side against your side. We can do it by lobbying one another. We can do it by negotiating. And so debate is one set of tools that we can bring to disagreement- just the way disagreement is one approach we can bring to the broader project of living together.
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