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December 21st, 2021
In the memetic tribe white paper, there was a speculative proposal section where we critiqued the state of debates. We suggested at least two new kinds of debates are needed:
Debate is broken. Nobody actually likes “gotcha interviews” or debates plagued with strawmanning, question-begging, bad faith, and side-stepping. Debate needs to be rebuilt. We suggest that debate currently tries to inhabit two contradictory roles. On the one hand, it is a source of entertainment through combat; On the other, it is an avenue for improved understanding and wisdom. We propose that these two roles should be formally separated into distinct types of debates: Sport Debates and Sensemaking Debates.
Our thoughts on Sport Debates:
In Sport Debates, participants debate for combat and entertainment. This would gamify the desire to engage in verbal combat for its own sake, with truth as a potential byproduct. They could be viewed as the UFC of the mind. While it may seem cynical to sponsor an avenue for the fiery and often toxic form debates can take, we think that diverting those urges away from sensemaking desires is a good harm-reduction strategy.
Our thoughts on Sensemaking Debates:
In Sensemaking Debates, participants debate for understanding and exploration. This would allow the purported values of debate to actually flourish. This can also include philosophical sandboxing, the adoption of ideologies as a method actor. Spaces could be made where participants take on ideological roles so as to better understand them, and to develop the skill to take them off.
These thoughts still hold up, as does most of the paper. This debate bifurcation was influenced by secretly doing “The Club” in Toronto for months before the white paper was written. The Club was one big experiment in debate. We found that the aggressive debates, where we oscillated between character and propositional attacks, ended up having a performative quality to them. They started appearing like rap battles, albeit with more philosophical content. My fondest memories were some of the members’ faces when somebody delivered a devastating “bar.”
The more loving debates we had were modeled after an exercise philosopher Jacob Needleman did in his classroom: listen intently to the argument of your debate interlocutor, then repeat it back until they feel understood. You can only present your counter-argument when your interlocutor expresses that you fully understand them. This technique has a history in therapeutic practices, à la Carl Rogers’ “active listening,” and our friend Edwin Rutsch gamifies this technique wonderfully in his Empathy Circle modality.
In our follow-up article to the memetic tribe white paper we released on Emerge, What Our Politics Needs Now: Anti-debates, we proposed a version of structured active listening for politicians to use, called “anti-debates.” We suggested that these new kinds of debates select for the candidates we actually need now...
Most importantly, citizens would benefit, as anti-debates would select for candidates that prioritise truth over soundbites. Anti-debates would require a new mindset, one in which the participant is prepared to publicly enter into a collaborative space. Candidates who can reside in uncertainty and admit to not knowing all the answers would shine. Those who show talent at anti-debating will be the candidates we begin to trust. And in our age of massive complexity filled with ‘unknown unknowns,' these are exactly the leaders we need most.
I can see citizens pressuring their politicians to adopt new debate modalities, but these debate modalities need to be more robust before this happens. Jonathan Rowson and the Perspectiva team have taken up the anti-debate idea, attempting to bring it to the wider world. We need more attempts like this, but first, my sense is that more work is needed, to carve out some conceptual contours and delineate higher-level categories of different kinds of debates.
My sense is that the crux of creating a robust debate categorization system is to wrap our minds around the intention of each type of debate. To filter the two suggested debates above through the intentional lens: the intention of the Sport Debate is entertainment, while the intention for the Sensemaking Debate is understanding.
Notice what I did not say as the main intention - truth. Now, the truth could be a second-order intention, or perhaps an epiphenomenon would be a better way to conceptualize it, but I do not think truth should be claimed as the main intention. It drives me nuts actually when I see certain memetic tribalists tell us they care about the truth as a source of motivation when in conversation. This just strikes me as dorky, and too much of a herculean task, especially given that most tribes are not even level-set on what the word truth even means.
I mapped out my model of what “truth” means to me in a previous entry called Where Truth Is Found, which I think nicely summarizes how complex that word can be. Here is the tripartite I proposed we start using - truth, truthfulness, and spirit of truth. The spirit of truth was the topic we were circling around when we discussed the motivation for public intellectual output in our session yesterday with Paul Kingsnorth. This is the thing that I sense debates should start focusing on - gaining a sensitivity to, and container for, the spirit of truth.
The Stoa’s wise matriarch, Ria Baeck, has developed Collective Presencing for us to gain this sensitivity, and other “we-space” practices are oriented towards this as well. I strongly sense that in order for the spirit of truth to breathe, we have to stop pretending that truth is our default intention, while at the same time, designing the debates in such a way where truth could still be stumbled upon.
I was talking to David Fuller about all of this, as he wanted to do more anti-debate type sessions on Rebel Wisdom, and a third category emerged for me: Connective Debates - a debate where the intention is not truth, or even understanding or entertainment. While all three of those can emerge, the main intention is to connect with one another.
Imagine having a kind of debate, whereupon hearing a disagreement, you pause, and share the emotional impact it has on you before responding with your counter-argument. Were you triggered? And is this triggering leading you to feel threatened, hurt, angry, or all of the above? The spirit of truth comes out when love is the foundation, so if all these unpleasant emotions are present, while not being acknowledged and not being loved themselves, then the foundation of the debate pivots to an emotional schema that encourages winning, or worse, harm to the other.
This is basically the current emotional foundation that is dominant all over the noosphere, especially on platforms like Twitter. The foundation is not love. It can be though. It is up to us to insist on this and to create new “containers” to promote this. The cool thing is, these containers are already here, they are just not widely known yet. The Stoa, being at the knife’s edge of the noosphere, provides the vantage point to witness how possible this way of relating can be.
Before closing out this entry, I sense it would be good to bring out my more philosophically nerdy side, who is obsessed with having coherency in his reasoning, and offer a proposal we can start working with. Having this debate tripartite helps - Sport, Sensemaking, and Connective; however, we do need a throughline to connect them all.
The throughline is found in the word “debate” itself. What does that word even mean? The first definition I found when searching is pretty good: a discussion between people in which they express different opinions about something. Now, let us recall the philosophical distinction between “argument” and “opinion,” which I made clear in a previous entry, quoting the person I originally learned argumentation from, Trudy Govier.
Trudy defines an argument as: An argument is a set of claims in which one or more of the claims, the premises, are put forward so as to offer reasons for another claim, the conclusion.
And her definition of opinion is: An opinion is a belief, often held with a rather low degree of confidence. Usually when we hold opinions, we are aware that they are our opinions in the sense that we cannot fully defend them by citing reasons or evidence in support.
I really like how the definition of debate above uses the word opinion instead of argument. This puts less pressure on having a slew of argumentations before entering into a dialogue where disagreements exist. To use philosophical terminology here, you can have “propositions,” aka declarative statements that are truth-bearers, with or without the backing of argumentation, which itself can be had with or without the backing of evidence. I am going to argue in a moment that simply having propositional opinions, while having a robust debate tripartite, is a good enough thing to have for now.
I looked up the etymology of the word debate as well, and found another definition I liked: a formal dispute, a debating contest, interchange of arguments in a somewhat formal manner. Yes, exactly. For a debate to be formal, it has to be given a form, consciously understood by all parties before entering the debate.
Given this, here is my proposed definition of debate: A conversation that has an agreed-upon form, where at least two people have at least two opposing propositions.
And the cool thing is, assuming these debate modalities are developed, you do not even need to explicitly know what the two opposing propositions are, displayed via written formal or informal logic, before entering a debate. You’ll just need to have a sense that opposing propositions exist between two or more people, which is not a hard thing to sense.
Given this definition, we now have a throughline that connects all three proposed debates: a sense of opposing propositions. I’ll now close with a summary of this tripartite, further filtering each debate through its first-order intention, relational disposition, possible techniques, and adjacent modalities that could inform its form...
First-Order Intention: Entertainment
Relational disposition: Performative One-Upmanship
First-Order Intention: Understanding
Relational disposition: Curiosity
First-Order Intention: Connection
Relational disposition: Open-heartedness
I imagine there could be other debate categories - play debates, laughter debates, eros debates, all alchemizing propositional differences by giving form to allow the spirit of truth to effortlessly flow towards the truth. Something feels correct about the three above being the main three categories to start cohering around though.
I can see multiple modalities emerge under these umbrellas, with different brandings and protocols. And that is cool, because we need to experiment with all of this now. We can experiment with modalities first, followed by Web3 platforms, creating what our friend Tada Hozumi suggested at yesterday’s Liminal Web session - a “yinternet,” a “place” that allows us to sense into all what is relationally alive, instead of our current “yangternet,” the internet which has a disembodying text-based rationality effect.
I think the project of getting good at argumentation, in the way Trudy defines it, is a very worthy project. I think it should be carved out as a separate, yet connected, project from developing new kinds of debates though. As mentioned in a previous entry, the culture war needs “embodied reasoning” now, and I sense we can engage in experiments to cultivate this skill. However, as long as we have an opinion, we can have shitty arguments to start with, and still participate in, and get good at, the three types of debates mentioned above.
Dislodging the pretense of truth as the main intention helps with this. Learning to entertain, understand, or connect around existing opinions is a skill unto itself that can be developed. These more honest debates, in turn, can serve as a trojan horse to nakedly reveal how incredibly bad we are at argumentation, encouraging us to get better at it.
What gets passed as debates these days are poorly designed Sport Debates, pathetically pretending to be Sensemaking Debates, with opinions being thrown around like memetically tribal “gang signals,” without any argumentative substance. It is all tribal signaling and we all know it. Any pretense to signal otherwise is so empty the signal is practically not even there.
Debates are broken, so yeah, let us fix them.
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