The Old Way of Dispute

Submitted by Jonathan on Wed, 05/13/2020 - 18:30

It used to be standard training in education in rhetoric ("persuasive communication skills," if you will) that you must be able to state your opponent's view of the disputed matter to your opponent's satisfaction (ideally, state it even better than your opponent had done) before moving on to explaining why you reject that view, and then making your positive case for your own view.

A Debate Image Involving Animals
Fine, let's settle it by a race.

(This habit is important not just for becoming a more persuasive communicator yourself, but also a better critical thinker. Going through the process required to communicate this way may end up leading you to change your own mind.)


It seems to me that in popular media and public editorials I rarely see this sort of technique being followed. If it were to become the standard of public communication again, I wonder if it would lead to a better public conversation about all sorts of issues, from how to respond to the pandemic, to climate change, to... etc. If done well, it would show that you respected your intellectual opponents enough to actually understand why someone would hold the views they hold, and that you can appreciate the strengths of their reasons, even if you ultimately reject their arguments. I imagine that this would raise the level of civility in the conversations.


I was reminded of this through my recent reading of William Wilberforce's book "A Practical View of Christianity." He was a member of the British Parliament, and was a trained and effective debater. He brings the technique to his book, and I find it very persuasive. But you have to be patient, since what he states at the begin of a chapter often turns out to be the view he refutes later in the chapter.


Perhaps that's a reason to think it wouldn't work in our society: we've been trained to lose interest very quickly (tl;dr), so perhaps most people wouldn't read or listen far enough to even realize what the author is doing, and walk away with the opposite impression from that the author is trying to make.


More's the pity.