A debater with thin skin is much like a soldier without composure: He isn’t much good to his craft, not to mention his cause.
I find myself debating a lot these days. Many of the topics revolve around business, brand management, crisis communications, Social Media, R.O.I. and marketing, while others touch on far more important ones like geostrategy, culture, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and Constitutional law. I believe debate to be a healthy pursuit – not simply an entertaining passtime – and engage in it with both delight and passion. I relish the opportunity to face off against another’s intellect and wit, especially when the act of debating an issue helps bring a discussion back from a place of hateful discord to one of mutual respect, if only for a few minutes.
It doesn’t mean both parties will agree or that one side will convert the other. I am not that naïve. All it means is that both parties will discuss the issue with respect towards each other. Debate is at its best an exercise in civility, at its worst an ugly, pointless brawl or shouting match.
The latter happens when emotions rather than reason get the best of someone involved.
Before you get to riled up, consider this that if debate is indeed a manner of combat (and it is,) it at least has the virtue of being bloodless. As such, it is a gentleman’s (and likewise a lady’s) sport. Losing an argument isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it may come with its share of benefits, not the least of which may be an education.
Now might be a good time to point out that debates are not about proving that one’s feelings about an issue should prevail. Debates are about arguing points, not feelings. “My feelings are more right than your feelings,” is an impossible argument. You might as well try to argue that your choice of a favorite color is better than someone else’s choice of their favorite color. It is completely pointless.
In every debate are two conjoined threads: One holds fast to reason while the other weaves itself into feelings and emotions. unless you want your exchange to degenerate into mindless hysterics, always focus on the former. While passion can – and should – drive a debate, it should never be the instrument of its discourse. Ever.
How this translates to this blog and exchanges I might have with you on Facebook, Twitter or even in the real world of face-to-face interactions is this: I will never tell you that your feelings about an issue are wrong. I may, however, tell you that your thinking around an issue is.
And then prove it to you.
When this happens, here’s how to best me: Prove me wrong. Not with feelings, not with arguments about feelings, and certainly not with anger, scorn, insults or threats. Best me with reason. If you make your argument, I will yield. (Gladly, in fact.) It happens regularly.
If you cannot make your argument, break off, give the topic of discussion more thought, do more research and try again when you’re better prepared.
Never will your feelings about an issue be enough to convince anyone of the validity of your position, especially if they revolve around anger. No emotion or personal belief, even if echoed by your peers, can ever justify the abdication of reason, especially in a debate. Show me your cool head. Show me the depth of your intellect. Show me the extent to which you have reflected upon an issue. Preparation here is key: Know what you are talking about. Know it from every possible angle. Consider all of the points of view, and recognize their every strength and weakness based on its own bias, not yours.
Only when you can see every angle can you consider yourself ready to enter into a debate – that is, a discussion about a topic with someone of the opposite viewpoint. Regarding this topic, here is something to consider: Spending most of your time both listening to a single viewpoint and discussing it with like-minded peers will not prepare you for a debate, the object of which is this: To prove the validity of your point in spite of your feelings, rather than by recruiting others to the emotion that secures your adherence to it.
A few tips on debating issues both online and offline:
1. Know the subject thoroughly. Not just your side of the issue, but all sides equally.
2. Trust both, but separate reason from emotion. The former is your ally. The latter is not.
3. Unless you live in a theocracy, morality and religion are subjective arguments, not objective arguments. Subjective arguments, while fascinating in certain social situations, have no place in reasonable debate.
(Update: Rick pointed out that I may be wrong about this in the comment section, and I see his point. Our discussion about context helps shed some light about this. I indeed failed to take into account the context of a debate when I suggested #3. He’s right.)
4. Respect your opponent even if s/he does not respect you. (Your professionalism, kindness and honor are yours. Their absence in an opponent has no bearing on your own.)
5. The moment either person involved loses their temper, the debate is over.
6. Thin skin and public debates do not mix.
7. Be aware that debating a point with an unreasonable person may be a complete waste of your time. Debating the virtues of civil rights legislation with a racist, for instance, may not be the most productive use of your time. Likewise, arguing ethics with a crook probably won’t get you anywhere. Just as worthy opponents make great sport, worthy opponents make great debates. Too one sided a contest typically yields disappointing results. Don’t waste your time on unworthy foes.
8. At least 1 out of 4 people who disagree with you may be utterly incapable of arguing a point objectively. See item 7 for further instructions.
9. If you represent a company or organization, heated debates may be ill-advised – especially when they touch on religion, sex and politics. If you are answerable to no one but yourself, no such limitations exist beyond those you impose on yourself. In either case, always remember item 4: The golden rule of public debates.
10. If you are bested, acknowledge it gracefully. If you win, thank your opponent for his/her gracious effort. All other outcomes are to be avoided whenever possible. Nothing is gained from the murder of civility, especially in matters of public debate.
One final note: Debate with heart, let outrage fuel your argument when it must, but keep your sense of humor close at hand. When all else fails, it may yet carry you through. The ability to laugh at yourself, at your own stumbles, at the witty barbs of your opponent when they deserve a nod, can be all the armor you need to compensate for any unwanted thinness of skin.