Have We Forgotten the Rules of Civil Debate?

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Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

I enjoy a good debate. I like discussing politics. However, this morning I woke up to two people on tumblr who were going after me with f bombs and personal attacks. Why?

They disagreed with my working definition of the word “socialism.” Yes. I got personally attacked because I feel social democrat policies such as those in Scandinavia are, broadly, “socialism” and they disagreed. Both of them received a block for violating the rules of civil debate.

Which led me to think that a lot of people don’t know what the rules of civil debate are. It doesn’t help that our politicians violate them regularly (on both sides of the aisle).

There are Rules?

There are absolutely rules. Even if you are in a formal competitive debate and trying to demolish the other person’s arguments. But a lot of people don’t know what they are. So, here’s a proposed list:

  1. Don’t attack your opponent’s character. Don’t resort to personal name calling, especially of a sexual nature. Your opponent may be wrong but they are not stupid. Attacks should be limited to the topic at hand and the things they have actually said. This is called an ad hominem attack and is literally the worst thing you can do in a debate. The second you attack your opponent’s character, you lose. Another word for this is “mudslinging.” It’s also poor form to attack the character of somebody else who is on the same side as your opponent.
  2. Don’t swear. Don’t drop f bombs all over your argument. (Most especially don’t use slurs, including political slurs such as “libtard” or “rethuglican” because at that point you’ve violated 1 and 2). Swearing makes it clear that you aren’t in control of your emotions, which means you aren’t in control of the debate. Again, you just lost.
  3. Don’t engage in whataboutism. We’ve seen this a lot lately. Much of the time it’s a Trump supporter responding to criticism with “But what about her emails?” Whataboutism or whataboutery is twisting an argument to insult either your original critic or somebody unrelated. “Both sides are equally bad” is also whataboutism. (Whataboutery is the British form).
  4. Don’t interrupt or talk over (when debating face to face). I’ve been on panels where people have done this and you can just see how much it annoys the audience.
  5. Don’t set out to change your opponent’s mind. (Influencing an audience is another matter). If your goal is to “win” the debate by forcing them to submit to you then guess what? You just lost. Instead, seek common ground. (In a competitive debate you are trying to win, but bear in mind that your opponent may not actually believe the argument they are making…in that case it’s all about the art of debating not whether Batman or Wolverine would win in the fight). You aren’t going to change people’s mind.

What Should You Do if Your Opponent Breaks the Rules?

A lot depends on who they are. But the best thing to do when you find yourself engaged in an uncivil debate, especially online, is to bow out.

Never respond kind to kind, especially if they insulted you. That’s really hard. When somebody is calling you a <censored> idiot, it is really, really hard not to retaliate. If you do, though, you will end up looking as bad as they are. If this is online and somebody you don’t know? Block them.

If it’s a friend, I recommend gently but firmly asking for a change of subject. If they’re really a friend, they’ll accept “Okay, I think we need to talk about something else and come back to this.”

If you’re in a public debate, signal the moderator. It’s their job to deal with the situation. (I’m probably going to do a post about moderating convention panels, something I have some expertise with, soon).

But if we all strive to stay civil, then it won’t ever come up.

But They Just Expressed a Horrible Opinion

So, you got into a debate with somebody you don’t know well, and they just came out with “All trans women are men pretending to be women so they can get into girl’s locker rooms and rape somebody” or “Black people are more violent and less intelligent, they’re animals and that’s just the way it is.”

You have two choices here. First, you can walk away. Remember what I said about not trying to change your opponent’s mind? It doesn’t work. Second, you can engage in a way that might show the fallacy of their views to an audience, especially if you are not part of the group they’re attacking. You have to read the situation.

Never engage somebody who is threatening you personally. Back off. Let somebody with the privilege to deal with the matter handle it. Please.

But even if you are talking to somebody who’s views you don’t consider to be up for debate, you should still stay civil. That way anyone watching will see who has the class in the matter.

We’ve forgotten how to have a civil debate, and it really is one of the problems the west has right now. If we all play by the rules, though, we can start bringing things back to a more civil age. (But without bowing to the bigots. Never bow to the bigots).

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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