Can you debate without winners and losers?

The Guardian author Adam Grant described how getting into intellectual sparring with a friend brought them closer. My take on his advice, last week. 

I have had some productive debates, without winners or losers. However, I didn’t have them outside of relationships that were already established. Like Adam Grant, these kinds of “debates” can be fun. However, they are no fun without goodwill.

Within families, what erodes goodwill:

Maybe this has changed for Gen Xers and Millennials: as a Boomer, I grew up with a school experience of debating. High school debate training is aimed at teaching students how to create an eloquent argument. It is structured as a contest in eloquence; you can have a great argument supporting an unpopular opinion and win the contest. When eloquence or persistence is more important that the subject of the debate, it is not the same as a true match between opposing ideas.

In both my family of origin and in my husband’s family, debate was encouraged. That debate also had a goal of making an eloquent argument. In memory, I can hear the pause followed by therefore, before a conclusion that was meant to be profound enough to prove the point. This debating style was favored by fathers, father figures, and older brothers.

When their profound statements were further questioned, the objection was about the beauty of the logic of the argument, not the moral or practical substance of the question at hand. When that did not silence the opposition to the moral or practical question at hand, the next line of argument went to respect for one’s elders, or comments about how I will grow up and realize he is right. It is in this context that one of my older brothers and I began to share ideas, only to see the goodwill lost.

Brief moment of goodwill:

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I had a long discussion with one of my brothers about the Covid lockdown from March to May 2020.

His stance was that Covid is no worse than the flu. If it is all right for 30,000 people to die annually of flu, then it should be all right to continue business as usual during this Covid outbreak. The lockdown is unnecessary.

My stance was that Covid threatens to be much worse than flu. The lockdown is necessary to contain it. I don’t think there are “acceptable losses” and “unacceptable losses” and find it cruel to think it is all right that people die, if they are weaker; especially if it is preventable. Public health systems work to contain flu; it is a failing that people still die from it.

We argued for about an hour. Both of us pulled up available data and argued about what co-morbidities we agreed were diseases that put people at high risk for mortality this year, even without Covid. We removed those deaths from our total.  This was a concession to his argument.

I made arguments about how American public health services should minimize deaths. I brought up examples of how some people’s lives were being devalued in the stories about who is getting sick from Covid.

Even with the modified number of deaths, we left the argument in disagreement:

His stance was that Covid will prove to be like the flu. The lockdown will devastate the economy. The right thing to do is to let people go about their business. Some will die of Covid.

My stance was that Covid will prove to be worse than the flu. I disagree morally about the idea of acceptable risk. America’s public health system should reduce the risk of deaths from Covid, as much as is possible.

During the course of our discussion, we learned some about who is dying of Covid, but this did not draw either of us from our respective stances.

Taking that debate public

My advice on internet arguments is to bring the question to your platform. This way, you can control the conversation. After this conversation with my brother, I put together a summary of the discussion for my readers.

The death of goodwill

Later that year, in September, this same brother brought up the same argument again. He invited me to another research session. I declined. My reason was that three times as many people were dead from Covid than when we discussed this six months ago. He still believed this is an acceptable loss. I disagreed with the idea of acceptable loss. Nothing had changed that would change my opinion that public health requires that we pitch in to avoid more deaths from this disease.

Apparently, that was the wrong thing to do with this brother. He had a need to engage, and I declined. The next phone call with him began with what he wanted to debate. His topic: “Do you endorse Biden’s new voting law that would give illegal aliens the vote?”

I admit, this one made me sputter. I could not even begin to untangle how wrong the question was. I refuse to debate something that is wholly untrue. It would involve unpacking the proposed voting law as well as the hateful term “illegal aliens.” I felt very annoyed with getting a face full of “owning the libs” from him. That was the end of our debates.

I now regret not parsing the numbers with him in September 2020. It might have kept that door open.

Leave a Reply