As someone who generally likes a free-flowing and open sort of discussion or debate, I have been amused at the sort of interest some people have in controlling the terms of debate for their advantage. It is striking to see just how politically motivated people are to ensure themselves a dominant position in a debate with others rather than seek a free and fair examination of the facts and evidence at hand. This has been especially noticeable in the last few months for me personally in engaging in rhetorical struggle with masters of spin and deception who were men (and women) who ought to have been more godly than that.
There are two ways one can focus on preparing for a debate. One can either focus on trying to marshal the best case possible or focus on controlling the terms of the debate to your advantage. As this is a bit of a thought piece, let us examine the approach of both a just and an unjust debate planner so that we may be able to distinguish how they operate and why they operate so. In doing so, we will be able to gain insight so as to recognize when we are dealing with a genuine seeker of truth who wishes for a free and fair debate and someone who already knows they are wrong but at the same time is unwilling to concede defeat and so tries to control the environment to win by intrigue and deceit.
The Fair Debate
As someone with a lengthy and profound interest in debates, and a volunteer judge at debate competitions, a fair debate is a matter of great personal importance to me. In a fair debate there are a few qualifications of importance. For one, there is a fair and just standard enforced externally by which all are held accountable. The goal of a fair debate is not just to win (though that certainly is nice), but to sharpen one’s own thinking by testing one’s thoughts and ideas and positions in an iron-sharpening-iron forum with others of similarly strong opinions and logical excellence. In a fair debate one seeks out the strongest possible opposing position so as to test the strength of your own.
In a fair debate the goal is the exploration of truth and logic to determine if one really has the goods in one’s argument. In many cases it is possible for both sides of the debate to be true in part, with the disagreement over which position is applicable to a given situation. In other cases, both positions are lesser concerns that must be subordinated to greater ones but which can wrongly be considered as the highest good by some. Whatever the case, a fair debate allows truth a just fight by which to defeat error, and allows all participants and viewers the chance to refine their own thinking as a result of the flow of arguments. All benefit from such a fair fight, whether anyone changes their mind or not.
The Unfair Debate
On the other hand, in the unfair debate the goal is victory at all costs rather than the open examination of truth. An unfair debate is often marked by a few negative tendencies, such as muddying the waters, a desire to control the terms and conditions of the debate, and the use of dishonest tactics. Let us examine each of these tendencies in turn.
In a fair debate one of the goals of all debaters is to careful distinguish and define terms so that there is a clarity of understanding what the debater is really arguing. The fair resolution of a debate depends on knowing and being limited to either conceding or refuting the point that the debater is making. In contrast, the unfair debate is all about muddying the waters with shifting and equivocating grounds of debate, the changing of one’s “position” and “concerns” from one moment to the next so that one cannot be pinned down, the use of subjective definitions that lack consistency, and the use of distractions to avoid a clear understanding of where people stand and what is at stake.
In a fair debate there is a consistent standard by which to judge all debaters that is fair and enforced by an external and impartial judge or referee, which makes the debate honest. In an unfair debate, however, the unjust party will seek to make themselves the arbiter of the rules, so that they are both referee and participant. They will seek to control the crafting of the terms to their advantage, so that if the debate is refused they can seize the moral high ground of being denied the chance for an open competition while if the debate is accepted the unfair participant has sought to guarantee victory through dishonest means. Additionally, an unfair debater will seek to control definitions for themselves rather than conceding to the use of an outside dictionary, which would be to give up control of the argument.
Finally, a fair debate is marked by the subordination of tactics to the grander purpose of seeking and defending truth. In contrast, unfair debate is marked by the subordination of truth to tactical concerns. There are whole host of logical fallacies, the most notable among them being the ad hominem attack, by which a dishonest debater seeks to attack his opponent instead of the argument, usually because the debater lacks either the evidence or ability to discuss the ideas and worldviews and logical issues and wishes to win a victory by attacking the personal flaws of his opponent.
The Source of the Problem
What is the source of this discrepancy between the two ways of debating? As is the case in many areas, the ultimate source of the difference is between God and Satan, and between good and evil. Let us briefly examine how.
God is predictable and reliable, His conduct according to a fixed character, with its goals and purposes plain, His truth clearly distinguished, and His interest in building character and proclaiming truth rather than in narrowly tactical or political concerns. He does not return evil for good and is a perfectly fair judge. In short, God is the ideal fair debater, and those who follow God will likewise follow His debating style.
On the other hand, Satan is tricky, stealthy, hard to pin down, not concerned with truth (because he knows he cannot win a case on the merits of truth) but rather concerned with victory by any means, fair or unfair, as well as the finding and exploiting of whatever loopholes and technicalities may exist. Since this is the behavior of the accuser of the brethren, those who are being motivated and led by Satan should be expected to follow suit in their own debate style. We are all disciples of a master, and our conduct will show whom we serve.
What then are we to do about this? For one, we must seek to cultivate a character of honor such that we are just and fair in our ways. For another, though, we must be able to recognize when we are dealing with dishonorable people so that we recognize their influence by Satan and so we can avoid letting ourselves be trapped or manipulated by them. Since the truth is stronger than lies in a fair fight, we must always seek to ensure that the terms and conditions for a fair fight exist, that terms are openly defined and consistently used, and that a debate hold the moral high ground and be focused on truth. In doing so, one creates the terms and conditions that the unfair debater will not and cannot accept, and so truth is allowed to prevail.