How to Practice Civil Disagreement
Debaters use persuasive arguments to disagree with one another. Their success depends on making the most compelling arguments--irrespective of whether a judge actually agrees with their positions. In real life, we generally believe that our arguments are successful only when we change the other person's mind.
Madeline L'Engle, author of "A Wrinkle In Time," gives this example:
One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said. "But Daddy, you don't understand." And my husband said, reasonably, "It's not that I don't understand, Bion. It's just that I don't agree with you."
To which the little boy replied hotly, "If you don't agree with me, you don't understand."
Debaters know that their arguments become stronger when they understand their opponent's position so well that they can argue it themselves! In these days of volatile discussions and angry rhetoric, it's more important than ever to practice and teach civil disagreement. Civil disagreement is more than agreeing to disagree or being polite during an argument. It's taking steps to turn a disagreement into a discussion, with a willingness to listen and a genuine effort to understand opposing positions.
"To disagree well you must first
understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say."
So, how do we
the lofty ideals of civil disagreement, let alone teach them? Grappling with this challenge is an ongoing process, but here are three starting points that we at
try to follow and share with our debaters.
- Watch your tone! For an argument to be heard, we need to first encourage the other person to listen to us. How we say something is as important as what we say, and our tone should engage and respect the listener whether in formal debate or informal argument. Condescending or belittling is a good way to get any listener to stop paying attention and take your argument less seriously.
- Be active listeners. This means we pay attention when the other person is talking. It means asking questions, not just to point out inconsistencies in the their argument but to better understand their position. It includes actually taking the time to listen and process what's being said before we tune out to think about our response.
- Assume the best in the other person. This is the hardest one of all. I don't think anyone can do this in every argument, but I agree with Stevens' assertion that when we start with empathy and an effort to believe the good will of the other person, we can better focus on their position instead of trying to discern their motives.
Does civil disagreement require tolerating intolerance or personal attacks? No, it does not (although the
paradox of tolerance
is a concept way bigger than this newsletter.) It does, however, ask us to strive to understand opposing ideas and acknowledge that the only way we can do this is to listen well, with respect and open mindedness.
As Stevens summarized, the first steps are simply to "shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak."
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By DebateAble Coach Sarah Holt
n early debate activity that emphasizes listening and civil disagreement.
ONE-TWO is an impromptu game where debaters practice civil disagreement. Ideally, it's introduced before the students begin to learn formal debate skills, like argument and refutation, as a chance to "get their feet wet" in the debate arena. Most importantly, it's an exercise that asks them to
listen, consider and respond.
1. To play the game, students begin by counting off by twos.
2. Pair every "ONE" with a "TWO."
3. Have each ONE come up with a statement of opinion about any subject, followed by the reason they believe it to be true.
4. Examples of a ONE's statement and opinion might be:
- "Abraham Lincoln was the best president because he did a really important thing by freeing the slaves."
- "Cheese pizza is the best pizza because you always know exactly what you're going to get when you order it."
5. Explain to the TWOs that their role is to:
- Listen to the ONE.
- Verbally consider the statement: acknowledge the argument with words like, "Ok. I hear where you're coming from, but..." or "I see why you might think that's true, but..."
- Offer a reason for that disagreement.
6. An example of a TWO's disagreement using the Abraham Lincoln opinion could include a reason why Abraham Lincoln was not the best president, or a statement that another president was better and why, or any other argument that specifically opposes the original statement.
The entire response might sound like this:
- "I see why you might think that's true, but I don't agree with you. In my opinion (I believe, or Actually, or I think, etc.) George Washington was the best president because he was the father of our country."
7. Call on pairs to share their disagreements, with each ONE going first followed by their TWO.
8. To take this activity to the next level, after the TWO states their disagreement, the ONE should respond to the TWOS argument with another reason that
supports the TWO's disagreement! In this version, the ONE must come up with an argument against their initial position, allowing them to practice thinking about and understanding opposing viewpoints.
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