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Defense of Debate

Speaking a few years ago at a Liverpool college, Mr. Gladstone, who is always for fairness to adversaries, said: 'The day had gone by when reticence or railing at opponents was regarded as a sufficient defense of opinion. Assailants of religious tenets must be met by reason and not by railing.' In words to this effect he counselled that adversaries should be met by argument. Mr. Gladstone is as much an ecclesiastical as a political authority, and no one else of his eminence as a Christian has, in my time, justified reasoning controversy. It is only those who, consciously or unconsciously, lack confidence in the truth of their opinions, who decry honest discussion. To him who believes he has the truth, opposition is his opportunity. He who understands that the sincere adversary is the friend of truth will find debate a great advantage. Your opponent may be the enemy of your opinions, but he is the friend of your improvement. The more ably he confronts you the more he serves you. The gods, it is said, have not given to mortals the privilege of seeing themselves as others see them; but, by a happy compensation in human affairs, it is given to adversaries to supply what the gods deny. They afford that indispensable light of contrast which enables you to discover the truth if hidden from you, or the opportunity to display the truth if you possess it. 'A good writer,' says Godwin, 'must have ductility of thought that shall enable him to put himself in the place of his reader, and not suffer him to take it for granted, because he understands himself, that everyone who comes to him for information will understand him. He must view his phrases on all sides, and be aware of all the senses of which they are susceptible.' But this facility can nowhere be so certainly acquired as in debate.

A master of debate amid orators of renown—Edmund Burke, said: 'He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This amiable conflict with difficulty obliges us to an intimate acquaintance with our object, and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial.'

Discussion commences without prepossession, and ends without dogmatism when each disputant is anxious to explain as well as to defend his opinions. As an established truth is that which is generally received after it has been generally examined, it is evident that, though truth may be discovered by research, it can only be established by debate.

The only verification of truth possible, is when propositions supposed to be true are subjected to criticism. The most competent writers (as Samuel Bailey, to wit) on the means of ascertaining Truth, agree that, while true things are true in themselves, and may come to be accepted without controversy, no one can be sure of the truth of very important propositions until they have been openly, freely, and universally discussed in a fair field of inquiry. All Milton asked was 'a free and open encounter' for truth, and no one could doubt its victoriousness. Like all intrepid advocates of a cause in a minority, Milton was too sanguine. A 'free and open' encounter is not enough—it should be a fair encounter also. If disputants are unequally matched as to powers of expression, extent of knowledge or means of obtaining it, or leisure for preparation for the encountertruth for that time may not obtain the advantage. People seem not to think that debaters should be as equally matched as may be. A savage undrilled against a soldier trained—a racer lame against one swift of foot—a village spouter against a London actor—a pedagogue against a professor—would be no fair encounter however 'free and open' it might be.

That is no fight—as everybody knows
Where only one side deals the blows,
And the other has to bear them.

It is because common-sense conditions of fairness are overlooked in discussion that many decry debate as uninstructive or disappointing. The sureness of a truth is known only when it obtains acceptance after every competent person has been heard, who has anything to say against it. Freedom of thought, and the free and equal criticism of it, is a condition of truth and progress. It is the well-understood interest of every community to permit, to encourage, and to give every man who can think, a chance of adding to the sum of Truth. At the same time, no person can hope to obtain from men of thought that indispensable criticism which they can give, unless the advocate of truth is himself studiously fair and friendly in speech.

Every man, said Walpole, and later, Pitt, has his price. Whether either had sounded the venality of patriotism and fixed the market price of his own virtue I know not. If Pitt was incorruptible, as is believed, he should not have said what he did. But with more truth and less offensiveness it may be said that every man has his reason, which, when once presented to him, will sway him; and to find this out is the problem rhetoric has to solve. I am not more favorable than Hood to the plan of ' dropping truth gently, as if it were china, and likely to break.' But if a fair case be so stated as not to mortify others by arrogance, nor annoy by ceaseless importunity, nor disgust by seeming vanity, but accompanied by evident indications of disinterested sincerity, it will generally prove acceptable. It is not the truth men hate, but the disagreeable auxiliaries which so often attend its enunciation. Bacon, I think it is, who says in his regal manner: 'Whosoever has his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up, in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly; he seeth how they look when they are turned into words; finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by an hour's discourse than by a day's meditation.'

Very few people are capable of charity without compromise, or can distinguish between them. Charity recognizes how a man may come by his error without being conscious of it. Compromise is suffering some error to remain, out of courtesy or expediency, in order to obtain co-operation in carrying into practice a portion of truth which would otherwise be rejected.

It is of use trying to find a common ground for debate. He who cannot find it, cannot convert. How can persons, any more than bodies, cohere, who never touch? So long as each denies to the other a share of reason on his side—so long as each maintains an infallibility of pretension to complete truth—they both assume what is contrary to the nature of things, and exclude the common ground which must be established between them, where truth and error can join issue. There are few impassable gulfs between contending men or contending opinions but such as are dug by pride and passion. All have a common consciousness of impression—a common nature to investigate—a common sincerity to actutate us—truth is our common object, and we have a common interest in discovering it. Nature made us friends: it is mostly false pride or false impressions that make us enemies. Thus common ground exists between most disputants. The common ground which exists is not one which policy makes, but one that nature provides.

These remarks regard conviction as depending upon truth not upon forms of procedure. Nothing is recommended here which is inconsistent with truth—no cunning questioning, no sophistical entrapment. The sole precepts are those of condescension and contrast. From a common ground of agreement, you have a common point of sight, from which all objects are seen in the same light; and a clear plane is obtained on which principles can be drawn, and a perfect outline of truth and error displayed. He who has the truth will make it plain by relevant elucidation. Differences are often made wider by irrelevant, repulsive debate. Differences which did not exist are often created in this way. All honest men desire the truth, and there is a way in which they can find it. The understandings of men commonly run in a given channel—each thinker looks as it were through a telescope of his own. It is only in debate that he sees it through the telescope of his opponent, which clarifies his own views. Let no man conclude because no immediate change of opinion is manifest in debate, that none has taken place. The life of thought may be begun. Seed brought from Egypt was found to grow more than eighteen centuries after it was garnered.

The supreme advantage of debate is that it compels a man to think. A man is not a man unless he is a thinker he is a fool having no ideas of his own. If he happens to live among men who do think, he browses, like an animal, on their ideas. He is a sort of kept-man, being supported by the thoughts of others. He is what in England we call a pauper, who subsists upon out-door relief allowed him by men of intellect. Nevertheless, there are persons in every assembly who, like Curran, have powers and know it not; or, like Macklin, who was more than forty years old before he knew that he was the Jew whom Shakespeare drew.

Thousands have powers unsuspected by themselves or others. Some may be compared to that daughter of the first Duke of Marlbrough—
All nature's charms in Sunderland appear,
Bright as her eyes, and as her reason clear;
Yet still their force, to men not safely known,
Seems undiscovered to herself alone.

The defense of debate—like that of national education—is that it discovers and trains latent talent for the service and exaltation of the nation.

Oral examination surpasses all other forms. Discussion after many discourses would be of great public value. The argument against debate, that it would lead to strife and discord, is one reason why it should be practiced. Men are childish intellectually, while in that state in which debate must be prohibited. If they be children, train them in the art of debate until they are translated into men. To admit debate after an address, it is said, enables factious individuals to destroy the effect of what has been said. It is often the fault of the speaker if anyone is able to efface the effect of his speech.

As a general rule, discussions, set and accidental, are good. A twofold reality by means of debate is brought to bear on the public understanding, more exciting than that of any other intellectual agency. An opinion that is worth holding is worth diffusing, and to be diffused it must be thought about; and when men think on true principles they become adherents—but only those adherents are worth having who have thought over both sides, and discussion alone makes them do that. True, men may read on both sides; but it seldom happens that men who are impressed by one side care to read the other. In discussions they are obliged to hear the other side. If men do read both sides, unless they read a 'discussion,' they do not find all the facts on one side specially considered on the other. In a discussion read, unless read at one sitting, the strength of any impression and the clearness of the argument on one side is partly lost before the opponent's side is perused. But in an oral debate, the relation of fact to fact is more completethe pro and con are heard successively, the light of contrast is full and clear, and both sides are weighed at the same time, when the eye of the mind is sharply fixed on the balance. If the disputants are intellectual gladiators so much the better, provided they are in earnest. The stronger they are, the mightier and the more instructive the conflict. It is said that people come out of such discussions as they go into them, that the same partisans shout or hiss on the same side all through. This is not always true, and no matter if it is. The work of conviction is often done though the audience may not show it. They may break your head, and afterwards own you were right. Human pride forbids the confession, but change is effected in spite of pride. But if an audience remain the same at night, they will not be the same the next morning. Conviction is begun in discussion which is not ended there. He who hastily changes his views is to be suspected of weakness, or carelessness, or caprice. The steady, inquiring and deliberate thinker is the safest convert.

It is a maxim of the schoolmen that we never really know what a thing is, unless we are also able to give a sufficient account of its opposite. This is the maxim of contrast that enters into all effective persuasion. Professor Bain, in his 'Essay on Early Philosophy,' remarks:—

The essence of the Dialectic Method is to place side by side with every doctrine and its reasons, all opposing doctrines and their reasons, allowing these to be stated in full by the persons holding them. No doctrine is to be held as expounded, far less proved, unless it stands in parallel array to every other counter-theory, with all that can be said for each. For a short time this system was actually maintained and practiced; but the execution of Socrates gave it its first check, and the natural intolerance of mankind rendered its continuance impossible. Since the Reformation, struggles have been made to regain for the discussion of questions generally—philosophical, political, moral and religious, the two-sided procedure of the law courts, and 'perhaps never more strenuously than now.' Remember that—
Through mutual intercourse and mutual aid,
Great deeds are done, and great discoveries made;
The wise new wisdom on the wise bestow,
Whilst the lone thinker's thoughts come slight and slow.

Persons whom you take to be wise and choose to think honest, will arrest discussion and conceal their own ignorance by insisting that the point in dispute is a mere affair of terms. 'What's in a name?' they say. Everything. Truth is in the right name. The wrong name misleads. Difference in terms means difference of ideas. To one who says he means the same as you, only under a different name, ask him to take your name and thus indicate the unity of his idea. He will do nothing of the kind, and you will soon see there is a difference in his mind. But for debate he would go on believing there was none.

It is no mean excellence in debate that it alone relieves a man of honorable conscience of responsibility. How can anyone bear the idea of putting forth opinions for which others, who adopt them, must in this life or the next be answerable—and he accords them no opportunity of the self-defense of debate? He who is not infallible must often be in error, even where he is most earnest, and he is answerable for whatever he says or does which influences the life of others. Discussion alone can save him from the consequences of his advocacy, so far as it may be erroneous.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).
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