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Policy of Debate

There are three points of policy in debate.
1. The first is the search for the truth—its recognition when found, whether in the mouth of your adversary, or elsewhere. As Dr Johnson says in his 'Irene':—
Be virtuous ends pursued by virtuous means,
Nor think the intention sanctifies the deed.
No talent, no genius is entitled to esteem, except as the use to which it is put is conducive to the welfare of all.
2. Since the adversary is the friend of truth, he should never be outraged or humiliated, or he will withdraw himself from the arena, or his friends will if he does not. Then debate is ended and discredited in public estimation.
3. Because discussion is the agency of establishing truth, the credit of debate should always be in the minds of both disputants. Be not contemptuous or impatient of those whose faculties are not 'on sight,' or perhaps non-existent. I would listen a reasonable time to a madman. 'Light is still light, whether it pass through colored glass or even a cracked window.'

Whether ridicule and satire may be employed in debate, are questions of judgment as well as rule. 'Cicero condescended to employ ridicule against certain chimeras.' 'Condescended' is Gibbon's word, admitting or implying that ridicule is at best but one of the lower forms of argument. Satire, in the hands of Lucian, was, Gibbon thought, a much more adequate as well as a more efficacious weapon. Shaftesbury regarded ridicule as 'one of those principal lights' under which things are to be viewed in order to their full recognition. Truth, it is supposed, may bear all lights. So it will, but the holders of the ridiculed truth will not. Most things, owing to time or circumstance—some intrinsically—have an absurd side. But it requires dexterity to show it without giving offence. In politics it requires consummate art to employ ridicule without outraging those held up to laughter. In religion it is never successful, if the object is conversion. Instructive ridicule is so difficult; and foolish ridicule is so easy, and commonly coarse and buffoonish, that, without the instinct and cultivation of art, ridicule should not be attempted. One rule is clear—a cause in a minority should never ridicule the cause of the majority. The wise profit by Coleridge's warning: 'Truth is a good dog, but beware of barking too closely at the heels of error, lest you get your brains kicked out.' Those in the majority, political and ecclesiastical, employ ridicule against the minority, without scruple or mercy, but are furious when it is employed against themselves, and resent it dangerously. Only now and then a man of genius does it on good part and amusingly. It is said by omniscient and self-complacent writers, that to argue with folly is to make it feel important.' But what one may deem folly may be matter of honest and serious conviction on the part of others. The subject of our ridicule, or satire, may be sacred to them: and there is neither sense nor self-respect in inflicting pain, .outrage or humiliation upon sincere persons, however foolish we may deem them. A master in advocacy, John Stuart Mill, held that, 'in general, opinions, contrary to those received, can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate, even in the slightest degree, without losing ground.' Sarcasm is mocking, and when without bitterness is enlivening. Ridicule holds persons or things up to laughter or contempt. Satire is diverting since it reflects on the intellectual oversight of adversaries. Ridicule is more common, because malice may inspire it. Satire is more difficult, since it is futile without wit.

Satire, like a polished razor keen, Wounds with a touch which is scarcely felt or seen. Sarcasm, ridicule and satire have always been regarded as bright weapons of controversy, but they require to be used with judgment and, above all, with good temper.

It is well to avoid words which may mean more than you can prove. Be chary of saying a thing is 'very' good or 'very' exact, when it may be merely good, and perhaps not that: its exactness may hardly come up to the average, when looked into. 'Most' is as dangerous as 'very.' It requires wide knowledge to say a thing is' most' excellent. The word 'none ' and 'all,' 'every' and ' always,' should be used very warily. It may require you to go over all mankind, over all time, and every event, to justify such wide-reaching terms.

If you invite opposition, do it with circumspection. The value of free speech is too great to be trifled with. Seek conflict only with sincere men. Concede to your opponent the first word and the last. Let him appoint the chairman. Let him speak double time if he desires it. Debate is objected to as an exhibition in which disputants try to surprise, outwit, take advantage of, and discomfit each other. To obviate this objection, explain to your opponent, beforehand if you can, the outline of the course you intend to pursue, acquaint him with the books you shall quote, the authorities you shall cite, the propositions you shall endeavor to prove, and the concessions you shall ask. And do this without expecting the same at his hands. He will not now be taken unawares. He will be pre-warned and pre-armed. He will have time to prepare, and if the truth is in him, it ought to come out.

If you feel that you cannot give all these advantages to your opponent, suspect yourself and your side of the question. Every conscientious and decided man believes his views to be true, and if consistent he believes them to be impregnable. Neither in minutes, months nor years are they to be refuted. Then a man so persuaded may concede advantages to his adversary, and enable him to arm himself beforehand.

In another particular discussions were esteemed unsatisfactory. When statement and reply have been made, then came the reply to the reply, and then the reply to that, till the cavil seemed perplexing, tiresome and endless.

Now, the object of discussion is not the vexatious chase of an opponent, but the contrastive statement of opinion. Therefore endeavor to select main points, to state them strongly and clearly, and when your opponent replies be content to leave his arguments side by side with your own, for the judgment of the auditors. Do not disparage an opponent, misstate his views, or strain his words, and thus, for the sake of a verbal triumph, produce ill-feeling. Your sole business is with what he says, not how he says it, nor why he says it. Your aim should be that the audience should lose sight of the speakers, and be possessed with the subject; and that those who come the partisans of persons shall depart the partisans of principles. The victory in a debate lies not in lowering an opponent, but in raising the subject in public estimation. Controversial wisdom lies not in destroying the adversary, but in destroying his errornot in making him ridiculous, but in making the audience wise.

A principle is a pathway. Deviation is error and waste of time. Intellectual courtesy to persons is consideration for others; it is conceding to others the right of acting on their convictions. But courtesy does not apply to giving up your own conviction nor in concealing it. He who is without principle is without any guide, not knowing what to do himself. Relinquishing or concealing personal principle is being useless to others, who are instructed by knowing their neighbors’ path as well as knowing their own.

Never invent opponents—never invent the opinions of opponents. Take real ones. The dangerous preference of imagination to reality is perhaps nowhere so apparent as in the construction of controversial books. Authors satisfy themselves with inventing the arguments of their opponents, when the easiest and most satisfactory course is to extract the most powerful reasoning the other side has produced; by this course real objectors can be answered instead of fictitious ones.

A perpetual device, or error of controversialists, is to state as a fact against an adversary their inference from his doctrines, and declare that he means what they say. After a while, if the accusers have a powerful party on their side, they will assert that the very terms used, in such inference, were the original language of their adversary. This used to be constantly done with applause in political, ecclesiastical and sectarian controversy. The practice has not wholly died out yet. The late Mr. Delane inferred from Mr. Cobden's expressed opinion in favor of land reform, that he would parcel out the land of the country among the people, and said in the Times that Mr. Cobden advised this coursewhich was never in Mr. Cobden's mind nor in his words. Mr. Delane put forth his own inference as Mr. Cobden's actual avowal, which he indignantly and successfully repudiated in letters which became famous.

Controversialists make much ado about the onus probandi, meaning the burden of proof, which rests with him who makes an assertion. He who denies what is asserted is often, without reason, called upon to prove his negative. Beyond remarking that it is the province of the assertor to prove, accept the logically unfair demand and give the reasons why you hold the negative opinion. This meets the case as far as a negationist can meet it. It continues the discussion, and compels it to proceed, and gives the negationist the opportunity of becoming the assailant by request of his adversary.

Debate requires self-possession—a power to think on your legs. But even in debate the victory is oftener with the foregone than with the impromptu thinker. A man who knows his subject well will be forearmed. He alone can distinctly see the points in dispute, and the nature of the proof or disproof necessary to decide the question.

Two persons of opposite opinions often mistake the way of coming to a common understanding: as, for instance, when one speaks at the other instead of explaining his own views to him. Each expects the other to come over to him, which neither is inclined to do, nor intends to do. A, in expecting B to come to him, assumes that on the part of his opponent there exists a predisposition for his views. This should never be assumed. It is the first endeavor of a foreseeing propagandist to create it if it does not exist, and strengthen it if it does—and whether it exists or not, he should always reason as though it did not. The business of A, the converter, is to meet B on the platform B stands upon, to examine his principles, study his views and turn of thought until he finds some common ground, if such there be, of faith, morals, opinion, or practice, with which he can identify himself.

There is no easier method of commencing a conversation than by asking a question. There is no safer introduction to an argument than by asking an opponent what he means, where his meaning is doubtful. Time and circumstance have given new usage, new senses, and new associations of idea, to words that once had but one meaning. Most words have now many meanings. "Where the sense in which a word is used is open to doubt—do not assume a meaning, but inquire the sense in which an opponent employs it.
The Socratic method of disputation or artful questioning (of which Zeno the Eleatic was the author), by which an opponent is entrapped into concessions, and thus confuted, is rather fit for wranglers and sophists than reasoners.

There is ground for believing that Socrates condescended to this course often at the expense of ingenuousness. It is said in his defense that he did it not as the sophists, for the sake of confounding virtue, but for the purer purpose of confounding dexterous vice. It is, however, beneath the dignity of a reasoner to betray his opponent into the truth.

Questioning, however, is an essential instrument. A high authority, Dr Arnold, has put this in a useful light:—'An inquiring spirit is not a presumptuous one, but the very contrary. He whose whole recorded life was intended to be our perfect example, is described as gaining instruction in the temple by hearing and asking questions—the one is almost useless without the other. We should ask questions of our books and of ourselves; what is its purpose—by what means it proceeds to effect that purpose—whether we fully understand the one—whether we go along with the other—do the arguments satisfy us—do the descriptions convey lively and distinct images to us—do we understand all the allusions to persons or things? In short, does our mind act over again from the writer's guidance what his acted before? do we reason as he reasoned, conceive as he conceived, think and feel as he thought and felt? or if not, can we discern where and how far we do not, and can we tell why we do not?'

Questioning has also a place in rhetoric as well as in research. Frankly conducted, it is a mode of conviction without offence. To whatever an opponent urges, with which we do not agree, of course we have some objection. Put this objection incidentally, or ask as a question, what answer can be given to it? This is a good conversational mode of debate, where the improvement of an opponent, rather than a triumph over him, is the object. It is not showy, but it is informing.

In a similar way confidence may be acquired by diffident speakers. A novitiate conversationalist is shy of taking part in debating a topic, lest he should not be able to sustain himself. To such I have said—put your argument in the form of an objection which some would urge, and beg some one of the company to tell you what he would say in reply. If to this answer you have an objection further, put that also in the questioning form; for a man would be able to ask a question who would never be able to make a speech. Wise members of Parliament know this. Once in conversation, the diffident will speak freely enoughperhaps too freely. A coward will fight when he grows warm in strife. By questioning a novice may learn the best answers others can give to his own argument, and without exposure learn his own weakness or strength, or that of others.

In interpreting the words of an adversary, he who replies has to put some construction upon it. It is safest to put the best. He is nearly always wrong who puts the worst, whether in debate or in daily life. To put the best construction possible on a proposition in dispute is to raise debate to a higher level and maintain it there.

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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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