Political Debates: Practical Advice about When to Walk Away

A young friend of colour asked in a recent post whether anyone had guidelines about when one should engage in political debate as opposed to walk away or refuse to contribute or to give an audience. I commented that was a good question and was looking for answers myself, but they jokingly (I hope) pointed out that I was among a number of ‘uncles’ who liked the post but gave no response of my own. I guess this is fair, so below I’ve tried to explain when and why I debate and with whom.  I’ve collated the different pieces of advice I’ve given over the years to young colleagues and activists, which conflicts with other advice out there. I'm doing this primarily for that friend but put it up here in case it is useful for others.

My guidelines have changed a lot since I was younger. In my late teens and early 20s I debated everyone because I fundamentally believed in a deliberative democracy. I believed through rational conversation we could find solutions to society’s problems. This was a genuine impulse and is still at the core of my teaching and politics. But subsequent experience has taught me to be more discerning with my time and energy.

Furthermore, to be honest, I also debated everyone because I didn’t know how else to be. I wasn’t raised to be self-reflexive and questioning. I was raised by conservatives to follow the status quo and had no notion of what transformative political conversations looked like. I also debated everyone because I was arrogant and thought too much of my intelligence which had until then served me well. Understanding the problems in my own behavior and my own attitude were important lessons that required me to change tact in order to not 'burn out' or in some cases 'burn less bridges'.

What is a good political debate?

The Westernised pedagogy of ‘debate’, particularly in debate clubs, teach young people how to ‘win’ at all costs through cheap rhetorical trickery and the cultivation of certain behaviours and attitudes, such as portraying confidence even when they do not believe what they argue. One is considered a ‘skillful debater’ particularly when they are able to convince a crowd of an argument they themselves do not believe in. We see this attitude in law, in marketing and in politics. If you Google ‘qualities of a good debate’ you will only get tips on ‘winning’ an argument or ‘convincing’ an audience through persuasive rhetorical techniques. This causes a lot of problems in our political culture and why I find most public 'debate' to be unfruitful.

I contend that for political debate to be meaningful someone must be learning (or potentially capable of learning). If no one is learning then the debate is pointless. It’s just two or more people stating their arguments (if they have any). Since no one is learning then it does not matter whether they do this together or apart from each other. What makes debates important is that two or more people with differing arguments can pit these arguments against each other to reach a better understanding, which will hopefully lead to an agreed solution. However, a better understanding is only possible if at least one person can learn.

If true, it follows that there are two kinds of debates that are meaningful, which guide when I do and don’t engage and with whom.

  1. Debates where the debaters are the primary learners, which occurs when both are genuinely pursuing understanding, even if one of the debaters has more knowledge than the other/s.

  2. Debates where the primary learners are the audience, who are genuinely pursuing understanding.

If no. 1 cannot be satisfied it is still possible that the audience could learn from the encounter. This is the second type of debate that I think is meaningful. This second meaningful debate requires having a good sense of context to know whether debating can still be useful to some audience members. Sometimes those few that I can reach are worth braving a hostile audience, say an activist Facebook group, but in other cases it is not worth my time.

When do I walk away?

I take these two kinds of meaningful debates to be conditions for what I consider a good political debate. I walk away when these conditions (either 1 or 2) cannot be fulfilled, which I’ve listed below:

  • Don’t debate in bad faith: Debaters that genuinely pursue knowledge are willing to thank their opponents for correcting them because the knowledge is their primary interest. When a debater fails to even acknowledge when they have made a mistake or when their opponent has made a fair point, I take these as signs they are not debating in good faith. Some people, particularly men, see it as a sign of weakness to ‘concede’ even a minor point or to recognise the intelligence of their opponent. This conflicts with no. 1 because if at least one party is more concerned about their cheap sense of pride than with knowledge or truth then they are not in a genuine pursuit of understanding. Such a person would spurn the truth simply because it came from the mouth of an opponent.

  • Don’t debate irrational fury: One reason people sometimes cannot debate in good faith is because they are caught in rage, even though that person may otherwise be able to debate quite well on other topics. It may be an emotional topic that is naturally upsetting or it may be that the topic is just too personal or too raw. While some people are quite capable of being angry and still debating in good faith, or better, employing their anger in their pursuit of understanding, many are not. If in the discussion it becomes clear a person is merely ‘out for blood’ then there is no point discussing or debating with them then and there. I might leave it all together or wait until they have cooled down. If, after a few exchanges over a longer period of time, it becomes clear that irrational anger is a constant emotional state then I just stop engaging. This is very difficult for left-wing people that haven’t dealt with trauma well, or people that haven’t yet learnt to manage their negative emotions and or even supposed left-wing ‘safe spaces’ that actually support or encourage toxic forms of anger against what they misrepresent as ‘tone policing’.

  • Don’t debate those not in a position to debate: This one took me a long time to come to because I originally felt it was ‘elitist’ but I maintain that it is fruitless to debate those without the knowledge or skills to learn in debate. It would seem to contradict the clause from no. 1 “even if one of the debaters has more knowledge than the other/s”. I do not simply ignore people because they have less knowledge or are less intelligent than me, which would be elitist. However, sometimes the knowledge of the person is so far from where it needs to be to be able to debate a topic because it would take years to teach them enough to even understand what was said. Sometimes too people simply are not intelligent enough or have enough intellectual dexterity or sometimes just basic interest to follow a complex argument. In each of these circumstances, they are not in a position to debate either because they cannot learn in that context, or because they are incapable of learning or because they do not want to learn a more complex argument. Even though they debate in good faith they lack a key ingredient to learn from the debate, thus making the discussion a fruitless, circular restating of their original position. There is no debate. It’s just someone repeating what they believe. However, this requires me to be able to read the situation properly and not simply dismiss someone as stupid simply because they disagree with me, a mistake I made a lot more when I was younger.

  • Don’t debate those who have not invested in their own learning: there are many circumstances where individuals simply jump online and launch an uninformed opinion before insisting that other people need to teach them. This sense of entitlement, particularly from those in dominant positions, has rightly been called out within the left. However, many activists often claim that it is “not their job” to teach others as a way of disengaging. As a teacher I find this annoying because I often get students who have not been taught the basics because everyone before me has insisted it is ‘not their job’. There’s something extraordinarily capitalistic about insisting that we only take responsibility for ‘jobs’. I understand that sometimes we get tired. Sure. Take a break – a long one if you need. But insisting it is ‘not your job’ is not politically sound to me. As members of society we have collective responsibility for our society and if we refuse all pedagogical encounters then we limit our wider social learning. It is all well and good if someone has the capacity to learn on their own, but, speaking as a teacher, I can assure you the majority cannot. Even if a person is genuinely seeking understanding there are many ‘obstacles’ they can come across in political thinking that they may require assistance in overcoming because some thought is so hegemonic in takes effort to think around it. In these cases, a focused but gentle nudge can lead that person to a political revelation. When we refuse these pedagogical opportunities we can often unwittingly push them in the opposite direction. My rule with this is that I try to match their own efforts if they have capacity to learn: if they have clearly put effort in and are humble enough to learn then I try to invest some time, but if they do not put any effort into learning I refuse to do the heavy lifting for them (especially in this Google era, there is no excuse).

As I mentioned above, it may be that when no. 1 is not met, the debate may still be useful because it is an opportunity for the audience to learn. This may be a public event or debate between researchers or a political debate where one knows ahead of time the opponents will not see eye-to-eye but it is in the public interest.

  • Don’t debate unfair debates: If the debate is just a screaming match where whoever has the loudest voice or the most time gets the audience’s attention then it doesn’t matter that the audience is genuinely listening because it is not conducive to genuine learning. It may be that they are simply ‘trolling’, like Milo Yiannopoulos does. Through his public appearances he has been extremely clear that he has no interest in debating in good faith, but rather uses shocking insults to emotionally disarm his opponents. Some people thrive in such debate and don’t mind because they believe in their purpose. They have no problems either being loud themselves or equally insulting to their opponents. I understand this reasoning but I do not share it nor do I find it appealing. As a teacher and a scholar I believe that I have a responsibility to embody debating in good faith with public interest in mind, because I still believe that this practice should be at the core of a healthy democracy (even if I believe we are far from it in our current political and media landscape).

  • Don’t debate before a ‘genuinely hostile’ audience: if the audience is genuinely hostile (i.e. not predisposed to even listen to your arguments but rather to watch you get attacked) then I would simply be allowing myself to be used as a prop. A ‘genuinely hostile’ audience is different from an audience that is not convinced or simply disagrees but are willing to hear you out. One can see this kind of attitude in YouTube videos where they claim someone has ‘owned’ or ‘savaged’ an opponent when nothing of the sort has happened. Often the person has either put forward a series of refutations of a straw man or they put forward a series of claims without evidence or reasoning and most importantly the videos cut out before there is any reply. Fans flock to these videos because it supports their pre-existing belief. They have no interest in hearing the other side. I feel this is a waste of my time even if one’s opponent is fair. However, it may be that the audience is more mixed, even though primarily hostile, in which case I might engage because I might be heard by some and even some might be worth it. But this is a case by case basis and requires me to have a proper sense of the audience. In online environments this can be extremely difficult to assess properly if you haven’t not spent enough time in a particular space.

Two more thing to note. It also follows that if I myself embody these exceptions (eg. if I'm locked in irrational fury or if I lack the requisite knowledge to debate a topic, etc.) I should step away. It takes a lot of practice and sincere humility to learn to walk away when you are the problem. I have often (very often) failed at this myself, which is how I developed these guidelines in the first place. Most people, particularly men, have no sense of their actual level of knowledge and are overconfident about their uninformed opinions. I certainly fell into that category and it was very painful to learn otherwise.

Also, sometimes when debating someone it becomes clear they've reached their 'limit' and may soon create a situation that may fall into one of the exceptions. For example, if in debate my opponent's anger builds up and looks like they are going to explode in fury, then I may decide to end the debate then rather than wait for the condition to be broken. It serves neither of us to push them over that edge. However, I'm also wary of when people in dominant positions use this as part of their rhetorical strategy, like a looming unspoken threat: 'either agree with me or I'll get really angry'. Sometimes it may be politically more important to continue the debate so I will attempt to disarm their anger first.

These are my preliminary guidelines that I’ve come up with in deciding when I personally engage in political debate both online and offline. It’s the first time I’ve tried to lay these out in writing in a way that makes sense to others. I know of other scholars and activists that disagree with these guidelines. My personal guidelines are influenced by my politics, my position as a scholar-teacher and my experience in activist circles and academic spaces over almost two decades so some aspects may not apply to you or your circumstances. Hopefully this is useful to some of you to find your own path of engaging politically without burning out.