Thoughts on Debate
By David Henderson
I strongly agree with almost everything that co-blogger Bryan Caplan wrote about debate. I do want to add a couple of things he didn’t say. One of them slightly contradicts one of Bryan’s pieces of advice.
Here’s the one that Bryan didn’t address, but I think he would agree with it. It certainly fits his idea that what’s important is not winning per se, but deserving to win. In my view, if you’re not willing to do this, you don’t deserve to win. Are you ready?
Admit when you’re wrong. Or, even if the person on the other side hasn’t convinced you that you’re wrong, but has made you have doubts, admit that you have doubts.
Related to this, how likely is it that your opponent hasn’t said anything that makes sense? I think it’s not likely. So, if the things that he says both make sense and are relevant, then admit that they make sense. You might have an answer–and, if you prepare the way Bryan suggests, you probably do have an answer–so then admit the point and give your answer.
One thing I hate–and people who know me and pay attention get to know this pretty quickly about me–is debates where people talk past each other. One person will make a point and the other person acts as if he didn’t say it. In many cases, it’s because if he acknowledged it, he would also have to acknowledge that it’s true.
Here’s an example of what frustrates me. It’s a “debate” I had with a speaker on military manpower who was taking it as given that in a big war, the U.S. government would need to institute the draft. I posted about it last month.
DAVID HENDERSON: Well, can I ask you this question, then? Are you saying that you think it’s infeasible, or are you saying that people think it’s infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time?
RICHARD HUNTER: I’m only saying that, as I understand the plans of everybody involved in the debate and the Congress and the administration, the assumption is that this is a peacetime program and that normally in peacetime in our nation’s history we have worked with volunteers. Congress, in its power to raise armies, and maintain navies, has done it through volunteers. And every time we’ve gotten involved in a major war, we’ve moved to some kind of conscription–and some kind of more or less management of the civilian manpower force. As I see history, that’s the context of this issue. I think that if a massive war started this morning, none of us would be here. We would all have been called out. We would start immediately figuring out ways to mobilize the entire society. And Bernie’s budget would go up faster than the whole rest of the country combined by a hundredfold.
Take a look at the earlier post if you want to see all the back-and-forth that preceded this. Notice that Richard Hunter would not answer me. He wouldn’t say whether he thought it was infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time or whether he thought other people thought it infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time.
Here’s the other part that slightly contradicts Bryan’s advice. Bryan wrote that you should not use sleazy techniques (I agree). Then, under sleazy techniques, he listed “Appeals to emotion.” Appeals to emotion can be sleazy, but they’re not necessarily sleazy. Indeed, one of the most effective uses of emotion I ever saw someone use in a debate was Bryan’s having his audience imagine what it would be like to be coming home from Haiti and having a U.S. immigration official tell you that you would never be allowed into the country. That was an appeal to emotion–and it was a completely justified and effective appeal to emotion. I can’t find the link and it wasn’t in a debate. But I certainly can imagine Bryan using it in a debate and it would have been completely legitimate.
Also, and this is an argument around the edges about emotion, but check Bryan’s Principle #6:
Talk to your opponent like he’s your best friend.
This is an appeal to emotion. It’s a completely legitimate appeal to emotion.
It goes along with something I’ve done when I’ve given speeches and I have some reason to think that some people in the audience will have heard things about me in advance and will come ready to dislike me. If they dislike me from the outset, it’s hard to reach them. So I will always show up early and talk to people in the audience. I like doing this anyway because I like people (as Ruth Gordon, playing Maude, said to Harold, “They’re my species.”) But it also helps warm things up so people can actually listen. Also, I will often try to think of something I appreciate about them or some team or some famous figure that has some relationship to their geographical area. So, for example, when I spoke in Wisconsin in March, and I knew that the audience would probably be somewhat familiar with Wisconsin political history, I led by saying:
While I’m not a fan of the late Bob La Follette’s domestic government interventions, I am a big fan of Fighting Bob’s, unfortunately unsuccessful, attempts to keep the U.S. out of World War I. His April 4, 1917 speech to an almost empty U.S. Senate chamber, in which he masterfully demonstrated the flaws in President Woodrow Wilson’s case for war, ranks as one of the finest speeches, both emotionally and analytically, in the history of U.S. politics.
I was trying to appeal to, maybe, their sense of pride and, as a bonus, get across my antiwar views.
Bottom line: Appeals to emotion can be legitimate.