Why even bother with political debate?8 October 2018
Debates about politics, whether in public forums or in private conversations, often seem to go nowhere. This is particularly true when the participants have diametrically opposed perspectives on how the world works and how it should work. Even when people manage to stay civil, which of course is not always the case, debating doesn’t usually seem to get participants or observers to change their minds, modify their views, or even find any common ground. Indeed, arguing about politics sometimes seems to make things worse. Political arguments can derail social occasions and occasionally destroy friendships and family relationships. It may seem not just prudent, but morally preferable to avoid getting into debates with people on the other side of the political spectrum. So what should we do? Confine all our conversations to the weather and the Great British Baking Show?
The suspicion that political debates do not change minds has significant support in psychology. Political beliefs and opinions are surprisingly and perhaps depressingly impervious to correction and alteration, regardless of how compelling the evidence is. We seem to prefer to go on thinking as we did before, producing a form of motivated reasoning in which we take seriously evidence that confirms the beliefs we already hold and dismiss evidence that undermines them. Indeed, in some cases being presented with information that conflicts with our existing beliefs actually leads us to dig in our heels even harder. The effect appears more pronounced when the beliefs in questions are ones that we see as central to our identity, producing what Dan Kahan has termed “identity-protective cognition.” In other words, if being a supporter of a particular political party or movement is essential to how I think about my identity, I am likely to be less open to information that threatens that identity and the social relationships that involve it.
Given all this, if the only point of engaging in political debate is to change the other person’s mind, then it is probably true that there’s little to be gained in arguing with other people about politics and perhaps a great deal to lose. Political argument threatens our relationships not only with our opponents but sometimes even with our like-minded friends. The only way to “win” is to refuse to give up any ground, regardless of what evidence turns up or what reasons are provided. Debates that reflect this mindset resemble gladiatorial combat more than civil dialogue. While some people do take pleasure in participating or watching verbal warfare, it hardly seems like a useful contribution to our shared civic life. But perhaps what we should really be doing is questioning the assumption that the primary point of political debate is to convert one’s opponent to one’s own way of thinking. Perhaps political debates, even when emotionally charged, play another role in our shared civic life.
We are all familiar with arguments that are not really arguments, but rather forms of friendly bantering among friends and family members. Often these so-called arguments are over trivial matters, like which sibling was the one who threw a shoe out the car window on a family vacation in 1979. But it is possible to have such friendly arguments on much more serious and indeed, identity-threatening topics, so long as the underlying relationship is capable of absorbing the tension. What this takes, as we have seen in friendships like the famous one between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia, is a tremendous amount of trust in the other person and faith in their good will. Such friendships may well be unusual. Still, we can use them as a source of moral insight into how we might conduct political discussions in other contexts. In particular, they point to the importance of the moral relationships among the disputants, and the ways in which arguments can sustain or destroy them.
In an obscure but fascinating essay in his Anthropology, Immanuel Kant spelled out what he took to be the ideal structure of a dinner party. Kant cared about dinner parties because he thought they served an important moral purpose. Well-conducted dinner parties contribute to two essential human ends – the improvement of our understanding of the world and the promotion of sociability, which we might describe as fellow-feeling. Kant took it to be the case that we have a natural desire to learn about the world, a desire that we can fulfill only with the help of other people. Since we are limited in our ability to acquire information ourselves, we depend on others to supply what we lack. Kant also thought that we have a natural desire to form relationships with other people (although this desire is somewhat confounded by our equally natural desire to feel superior to those other people and our related tendency to find them annoying.) The structure of a Kantian dinner party is carefully designed to promote these ends, enabling us to learn from other people while still enjoying their company. Thus, guests are limited to a number small enough to form a single group, conversation is carefully guided so as not to generate anger or resentment, and competitive post-dinner games are banned entirely. The physical state of the guests is taken into consideration at each stage, since, as Kant was well aware, people who are hungry or intoxicated have trouble playing within the rules. But if all goes well, guests leave the party feeling as though they have extended their understanding of the world and that they are in harmony with their fellow human beings. It is a tall order for a dinner party, but it is not hard to see why a successful one would be so appealing.
Can we imagine a political discussion oriented not around convincing opponents that they are wrong, but around these two ends – improving our own understanding of the world and promoting sociability? We can, I suggest, if we are prepared to think differently about our goals in engaging other people in political conversation. Let us start with the first end – that of improving our understanding of the world. Assume for the purpose of discussion that my opponent in the debate has his facts all wrong. (Anyway, as we know, even if he does not have them wrong, I am likely to think that he does.) What exactly am I supposed to learn about the world by engaging him? One obvious answer is that by attending to the kinds of reasons that he offers for his political positions, I will improve my understanding of how other people think, what motivates them, and what they take to be compelling arguments for their positions. Importantly, I can do this while continuing to think that he is making a series of massive mistakes in his thinking. If my aim is to understand him, rather than convince him, then there is nothing preventing me from succeeding except my own unwillingness to attend to what he is saying.
The second end, that of promoting sociability, may seem less compelling in the case of deeply divisive political issues. Why should we value leaving a political debate feeling in harmony with my fellow human beings? Let me suggest that we understand this end of sociability not in terms of warm fuzzy feelings, but in terms of acknowledging our shared membership in a moral and political community. Political debates should have the effect of reminding us all that we are participants in a common project, that of trying to live with each other on peaceful terms. This requires that we be willing to engage with people whose views we detest and whose worldviews we find incomprehensible. Political debate is not always the best way to go about that engagement, but it is sometimes our only real option. Understood this way, sociability is not always a pleasant pursuit. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.
I am not suggesting that we should never try to change someone’s mind through debate. Certainly there is value in continuing to support our political views with arguments founded in good reasons and solid evidence. We should just not expect it to work very well most of the time. In particular, we should not expect it to work well when we approach political debates as gladiators armed for a fight to the death. As it happens, there is evidence that if you really want to change someone’s mind, the most effective way to do it might just be to engage them in a long conversation in which you actually listen to what they have to say. Perhaps even over dinner.
 On Kantian dinner parties, see Alix Cohen, “The Ultimate Kantian Experience: Kant on Dinner Parties” History of Philosophy Quarterly 25, no. 4 (October 2008): 315-336 and Karen Stohr, “The Etiquette of Eating” in the Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, eds. Anne Barnhill, Mark Budlofson, and Tyler Doggett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Picture: Laid Table by Roger Kirby