It is no secret to anyone who knows me or even knows of me that I am fond of debates, and that I am a fairly fierce debater. I am often thought of as even more fierce than I am, though that is certainly understandable. In pondering this particular tendency, I often think of how my family dynamic has led to a certain tendency to be fiercest with those I care about the most, and to realize that much of my family seems to act the same way (perhaps even more fierce than I am–which may be hard for some people to believe).
There are several types of debates that one can have, and I have discussed some of them and what makes some debates a zero-sum position already . I have already also discussed how having too many preconditions can make a debate impossible or worthless . What I would like to discuss, though, is the precondition that is absolutely essential in order for there to be a civilized and reasonable debate, and that is the precondition of respect.
Many of the problems and insecurities that debates deal with revolve around the issue of respect. For example–concerns about other people trying to control the terms of a debate is a problem with respect, either your lack of trust in someone else, or the lack of respect others have for you, or both. It takes mutual respect for a debate to be profitable and civilized, and with the decline of civility and respect that we have seen in our society over the past few decades the issue of respect has become even more problematic. Paradoxically, the less respect there is the more there is to argue about and debate, but the more pointless discussions and debates become because there is less and less “common ground” to discuss.
Debates, even under the best of circumstances, are tricky business. Assuming that one is debating about a subject one deeply and sincerely cares about, rather than simply loving to argue (and I will note that I tend to debate only about those things that I do deeply care about), a substantial portion of one’s personal dignity and identity will be tied up in one’s positions. This is true even when the cause is unjust, perhaps especially so (for example, the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War, or the cause of antinomians with regards to the standards of biblical Christianity). The danger of a debate, especially a fair and honest and free-flowing one (as I enjoy having) is that the debate will easily enter very sensitive ground.
It is easy to figure out how this would be the case in debating about the Civil War. For example, any argument that the South fought for slavery and not state’s rights (as the South itself freely admitted in 1860 and 1861 but has ferociously denied ever since then) might be seen as a gratuitous insult to someone debating the cause of the South according to neo-Confederate lines whose ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy but who does not wish to be painted as a racist or white supremacist simply for supporting the cause of his ancestors. In short, there is a great temptation for someone defending the honor of their fathers to seek to rewrite the history in order to prevent their ancestor from being judged with a great moral evil. This tendency, as wicked as it is, is entirely understandable.
Even worse, such a person who is deeply defensive about an unjust cause that is, for various (and even honorable reasons–the desire to honor one’s ancestors, for example) is likely to consider anyone who defends the truth to be causing a mortal insult on their honor and dignity, and little good can result from such insult, regardless of how unintentionally given. When the truth makes someone so hostile as to incite actual violence, then how is someone to reject the unjust cause of their fathers (as the children of Korah did in Numbers 16, to give but one example) and to therefore escape condemnation themselves and avoid being offended unnecessarily?
Part of what is needed is for mutual respect to exist, and be known on both sides, so that the examination of a historical problem or other debate topic be safe from becoming a personal attack, or being seen as such. Mutual respect can resolve a lot of the problems that debates cause, and can keep a spirited discussion from causing offense. Additionally, mutual respect allows both parties to learn from a debate (which is the useful part of a debate–seeing and meeting the strongest arguments for the opposite position that someone has).
If someone is engaged in the type of debate that was fond of philosophers like Hagel, then the goal is a sort of dialectic. For example, the debate between “security” and “freedom” is a dialectic. For example, the vast majority of people will happily trade substantial freedoms for the illusion of security (have you ever flown a plane recently), but at the same time people who are responsible will trade substantial security for freedom from tyranny if they themselves are not slaves in mindset. The real object of a dialectic like freedom or security is to determine where one rests on the continuum, not which is ideal. The same sort of continuum exists with regards to the level of necessary government–that necessary level depends on whether people are self-disciplined and moral or not. The greater the self-discipline and moral excellence, the less government is necessary to preserve the civil order.
We can only make profitable use of debates if we debate those we respect, and if they respect us as well, so we can examine ourselves and the limits of our position, and whether our positions on certain issues are contingent on other matters. We cannot get to the hart of the matter, cannot get to brass tacks, unless we respect others to give our best shot and take theirs. Where that mutual respect is not present, to debate is pointless, or worse, an exercise in contempt. Where do we find and build that respect, though?