Debate vs. Theater
Many years ago, when I was the guest on a show whose host I knew, I was struck by how much less pleasant a person he was on the air than off. I concluded that he was doing the job he had been hired to do. Being nice is less dramatic than being nasty. Treating people you disagree with honestly and sympathetically, conceding the parts of their argument that are correct while disputing the parts that are not, is less effective theater than telling them what idiots they are—especially if most of your listeners are already on your side.
If I read Paul Krugman or listen to Sean Hannity (what does it say that I can easily mention the two in the same sentence?), it seems to me that anger must be very successful from a marketing standpoint. If so, then I am certain to fail in the political debating marketplace.
In a real debate, you recognize that your own position has weaknesses that must be addressed. In the theater that passes for political debate, insults are the norm. I prefer real debate.
What are some other characteristics that distinguish real debate from political theater?
Mar 9 2006 at 9:23am
In “real debate” the stake is intellectual, in politics it’s financial.
In a real debate, participants are incented by the utility of confronting ideas. In politics the incentive is getting ahead with public money.
Mar 9 2006 at 10:25am
Interrupting for the sake of interrupting. See generally, “The McLaughlin Group.”
D E Schmidt
Mar 9 2006 at 11:36am
In “political theater,” the use of logical fallacies rises to high art. False Alternatives (“Do you hate America, yes or no!”), Red Herrings and Straw Men carry the day.
In real debate there is more of an opportunity to show these tactics for what they are.
Mar 9 2006 at 12:00pm
Sadly I believe it is also true that real debate almost never convinces anybody. For better or for worse, people respond more easily when their emotions run high. The fraction of people who change their views as a result of reasoned debate is probably statistically insignificant.
Mar 9 2006 at 12:08pm
Arnold, you forgot to mention good hair. Sean Hannity has great hair. W has pretty good hair for guy pushing 60. Kerry had great hair. Hillary has phenominal hair. Dick Cheney doesn’t have good hair, but he doesn’t want to be President, and he has a shotgun. Karl Rove has horrendous hair, but I get the feeling he is happy channeling his beliefs through W (who has pretty good hair).
At some point, if you want influence, you have to play the game. If not directly, then through a competent proxy who has good hair and can do that pouty lip trick that Bill Clinton does. It’s how you successfully connect with most people.
Mar 9 2006 at 12:40pm
Analogy rarely stands up to the scrutiny of real debate, but acts as a powerful rhetorical tool and inspires the listeners memory.
Politicians and leaders are implored to simplify and generalize. jn is correct that real detailed debate isn’t an effective persuasion tool. Unless your audience is a group of scientists or parties deeply knowing of your subject, no one has the time for the details.
The public wants bold, simple summaries. Look at how we get our news.
Mar 9 2006 at 1:43pm
Doesn’t speak well of the audience or the audience being choosen and played to does it? It adds excitement though and the boring is the enemy. Humor works better, but is more difficult.
Mar 9 2006 at 2:28pm
“sadly I believe it is also true that real debate almost never convinces anybody.”
Speaking for myself, I have been convinced of something important by real debate at least twice–once in realspace, once online.
The first occasion was an argument with Isaiah Berlin when I was an undergraduate. He convinced me that the position “right and wrong are merely matters of taste, entirely unlike statements of fact” was much less defensible than I thought. That has influenced my view of moral philosophy ever since.
The second was an online discussion of the idea of making convicted criminals work off a financial penalty. The person I was arguing with pointed out the risk–if punishing people is profitable, there is an incentive to punish them whether or not they are guilty. That insight produced one journal article and significantly affected my views on the subject.
Mar 9 2006 at 4:28pm
One thing that distinguishes “real debate” from “poilitical theater” is a reluctance to set up such straw men.
Professor James Hamilton’s “Econbrowser” blog (with Menzies Chinn) is an excellent example, where real ideas are placed on a factual basis, and considered for sake of knowledge, not persuasion or ideological purity. Hear’s a fine example: http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2006/03/rising_longterm.html#comments
Mar 9 2006 at 5:03pm
As someone who has occasionally been on there, although not for some time, I would note that there is an especial problem with TV. The viewers are easily bored and must see a dramatic spectacle. For discussions of economics this must involve an apparent sharp clash of ideas and, better yet, of personalities. So, to get invited back one must be good at polemical and simplistic sound bites, along with an ability to slash and burn personally. Otherwise, boooring, time to go to ESPN or whatever.
Mar 9 2006 at 6:30pm
The biggest difference between real debate and theater that I frequently see is how one side interprets the other’s points/rhetoric/language.
Often 90% of a “debate” is taken up by taking uncharitable interpretations of the other side’s argument which are not per se unreasonable, but which are still a slight mischaracterization of the other’s point.
In a real good faith debate, there is a Golden Rule of interpretation at work.
Mar 10 2006 at 1:24pm
The distinction between real debate and political theater is that real debators may arrive at some derivative of the truth where political thespians make the rules by which were are forced to live.
Mar 12 2006 at 7:31am
Is the debate primarily a search for truth, or a battle for points?
Some possibility of being convinced is a significant marker of “real debate”. I’ve been involved in ongoing discussions on usenet for years. In groups that resonate with me as searching for truth (which doesn’t include most explicitly political groups), it is common for me to change my opinion in small and occasionally large ways based on the arguments I read.
In any given discussion of course, I’m much more likely to retain my starting opinion than to have it change, but over time, people have convinced me of an awful lot of things I didn’t start out believing, and I them.
I like this:
In a real debate, you recognize that your own position has weaknesses that must be addressed.
In particular, when my position has weaknesses, it is sometimes because the position needs to be revised. Real debate can demonstrate the flaws and point this out. I deplore the common accusation of “backtracking” when someone revises their position in response to debate. It suggests that the only options are to be omniscient and inerrant, or a slave to the political wind.
Anyone who has never revised their position in response to unanticipated evidence or arguments is much more likely to be ignoring useful information than to have been right from the start all the time.
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