Election season is over in the US, but folks are still talking about how divided political conversation is. We hear that people are trapped in filter bubbles that limit their exposure to varying opinions and that America is more divided than ever thanks to modern media enabling our tribalism. And although I suspect we are primarily seeing a return to normal levels of tribalism from the unusual dream time of cosmopolitanism enabled by recent mass migration to cities that ended in the 1970s, there is a deeper source of divide found in the structure of our public conversations that lies beneath the stormy seas of politics.
Specifically, most public political discussion is debate. News programs do this explicitly both when they organize formal debates between candidates and everyday when they ask experts to argue policy. Politicians and experts also do this implicitly when they give solo speeches by speaking in the context of what others have said and arguing for their positions against others. And given how politicians and experts are often criticized for going “off point” when they fail to maximize their opportunities to argue for their positions, it seems there is little room for anything other than debate in political discourse.
A similar pattern exists outside politics. Professors debate contentious academic topics. Theologians contest the fine points of religion. Lawyers argue cases to convince judges and juries. People even debate against themselves by making pro/con lists. All of these are attempts to find the truth, to understand reality as it is, and all do so through adversarial talk.
If this is what you’re used to this probably seems normal, but there is a fundamental problem with seeking truth through debate. To understand why, consider what’s happening in debate from a game theoretic perspective. Two parties, A and B, are presenting information to a third party, C, who will use the information to develop beliefs. The payout is something like this: C wins if C ends up with true beliefs; A wins if C adopts A’s beliefs, and B wins if C adopts B’s beliefs. The game is not zero-sum: if A’s beliefs are true then C and A can win; likewise B and C can both win. But if we ignore C’s payout, the game is zero-sum: A or B or both must lose and at most one can win. This informs the strategies that A and B take.
The best situation if you are A or B is to have true beliefs. Unfortunately this is hard. And although for simplicity here I talk about “true” beliefs, in fact we should be talking more about how closely a belief corresponds to reality and talk about winning more or less depending on the strength of the correspondence. So really what we should expect if we are A or B is to have somewhat true beliefs where we’re not even sure how true our own belief’s are. That’s the kind of situation in which the debate game has to be played.
Even if A and B were aware of how true their own beliefs are, the structure of the game still encourages them to play to win with known false beliefs such that either A or B is the only winner. In such a scenario C is not necessarily even helped by A and B; C must try to win despite A and Bs’ attempts to persuade them. This is the problem with debate: it can work, but its structure ensures that it will mostly diverge from the ideal case and create a game where A and B will actively try to make C lose. This is, in short, a very ineffective way of trying to understand reality if your goal is true beliefs.
The game of debate forces its interlocutors into motivated reasoning, an attempt to find a plausible explanation for conclusions already determined rather than an attempt reason out a conclusion. Motivated reasoning skews our view of reality towards what we wish was true was rather than what is. Surely we can approach collaborative understanding of the mundane world around us without resorting to rationalization.
A debate is etymologically a fight. It’s a kind of dialogue or “across speech” that puts the participants against one another. If I were to be so bold as to define a new term, debate is a kind of dislogue or “against speech”. What we want instead is dialogue that brings participants together through logical reasoning. What we want is dialectic.
Dialectic is philosophical, rational speech aimed and addressing contradiction. Rather than trying to resolve disagreements, though, it accepts them as a source of developing deeper understanding. Through repeated acceptance of contradiction, or aufhaben, it grows comprehension towards a completeness that incorporates both thesis and antithesis.
That’s all a bit abstract, though, so here’s an example of a dialectic. While watching it, notice how negation advances understanding rather than contracting it.
At each turn of the narrative, a negation of a previous conclusion arises that leads us to broader understanding. This is nearly the opposite of what happens in debate, where negation is used to drive back competing explanations to create space that can be filled with the speaker’s preferred reasoning and conclusions. If debate is a fight, then dialectic is a dance where contradictions partner in graceful harmony.
But, I anticipate you protesting, isn’t this just debating politely? Perhaps the outcome is similar, but the key difference between debate and dialectic is that dialectic is not a game in the game theoretic sense. Even if there are multiple participants in a dialectic, there is no one who can win. The goal is truth, so well as it can be understood, without regard for who helps find it. Dialectic makes no space for individual credit, so it removes the payout matrix and replaces it with a single payoff shared by all.
This of course means that we must still debate.
For although dialectic offers a better way to reconcile differences in approaching the truth, nearly everyone is incentivized to (meta)defect and turn dialectic into debate. Unless you are like Hegel and ask to be judged by your own methods, you will have greater prestige if more people adopt beliefs like yours because you argued for them. So if there is nothing to guard against it, there is incentive to defect and treat dialectic as a game, and then to defect a little in dialectic to gain a little prestige but still mostly get at the truth. But defection begets defection, the balance is broken, and we soon find ourselves back at the equilibrium of debate.
But if debaters still care about the truth, perhaps because they are both participant in and judge of the debate, there may be ways to work within the game to produce more winning outcomes. One such approach, the “double crux”, is how fellow Map and Territory contributor Duncan A Sabien tries to improve debate.
As for me, I ironically find myself soldiering on in a campaign to engage in dialectic despite the forces of reality opposing my choice. In doing so I reveal a preference for truth over prestige, perhaps making dialectic natural for me anyway.
Great article! I seek to embody this attitude when I converse