Debate vs. Dialogue (or, The Truth is Out There)

Debate and dialogue, while both tools for political exchange, are important to distinguish as philosophically different approaches.

To be sure, the two are similar in many ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, they both seek the Truth. Furthermore, they both rely on information exchange to try to discover the Truth. They both require rational arguments, and may or may not accept rhetorical, emotional, or experiential statements.

Yet the two are importantly different.

Consider, for example, a political debate. Candidates not only state their views and highlight points of disagreement – they make the unwavering case for why they are right.

In true dialogue, on the other hand, people share their views while trying to understand the views of their peers.

I am not sure how to best quantify this difference, but most fundamentally, it seems – in a debate, participants try to win; in dialogue they seek to agree.

That’s not to say that debate is bad and dialogue is good. Debate can help protect against bias, for example. A group that agrees without carefully considering all the options may well agree on on something inaccurate or suboptimal. The process of debate – in which each idea is vigorously and equally defended – can therefore help ensure that each idea is considered fully by its merit.

But I do wonder if debate is the best format for politics and discussion amongst candidates. Debate feeds into an “us” versus “them” mentality which here only serves to reinforce existing polarization.

The approaches also imply different theories as to where Truth lies. In dialogue, Truth most clearly resides in the wisdom of the whole. Participants are supposed to share rational arguments for one view or another, but the fundamental assumption is that – if everyone enters this process with an open mind – the Truth will be surfaced through this process.

I’m not sure the same can be said for debate. In this setting, Truth seems to take on a somewhat technocratic air – capable of discovery by the most skilled rhetoricians.

That may be a somewhat unfair generalization of debate, yet it is enough that it ought to give us pause regarding the ubiquity of debate – and the lack of deliberation – in political settings.

The question, then, is: what would a more dialogue-centric democracy look like?


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