In the seminal Monty Python sketch, Palin’s character says that an argument is “…a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition” to which Cleese replies “No it isn’t”. Palin continues “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.” “No it isn’t” Cleese again replies. Many observers of today’s political debates could be forgiven for thinking that far from being a humorous observation, the Python sketch was actually a fair summary of public discourse.
The twice-weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons may only draw a small audience but it does, without a doubt, set the tone. Arguments become binary: my Plan A is better than your Plan B. The protagonists raise their voices over the baying backbenchers, turning serious debate into something like a blood sport. This aggressive he-said-she-said attitude is too often replicated in other debates. Broadcast journalists love what they call the head-to-head interview, encouraging attacks, constantly trying to trip people up and to find differences of opinion.
Two events this week have, however, given me hope. The first was a panel discussion (held at PR consultancy, Fishburn Hedges) on the future of money. The panel had a number of things in common: firstly, they were all incredibly well briefed and knowledgeable about their subject; and secondly they were there to debate and share ideas rather than score points. The result was an engaging and thought-provoking evening.
The second event was a debate between two schools in the Debating Matters competition, supported by the Institute of Ideas, in which I was fortunate enough to be one of the judges. The subject for debate was whether the UK should follow other European countries and ban the Burka. The two teams, made up of 17-year old school children, were outstanding. They had done their research, mastered their brief, and synthesised the information in order to produce highly effective and compelling arguments which they both delivered well. But it didn’t end there. In addition to delivering a seemingly nerve-free argument (no mean feat for such young people) they also listened to what the other team were saying. Too frequently people see a debate as taking turns to get their message across. They use the time when the other side are speaking to silently rehearse what to say next. These two teams not only listened but also took notes and, in real time, judged what arguments to employ that best counteracted the points made by their opponents.
Very few things today are completely black and white. The complexity of modern life and the inter-dependency of so many issues mean that it is important to understand nuances of thought. Debates which are little more than shouting down opponents are of little value. Today’s politicians could do well to take a lesson from the young people taking part in Debating Matters. It isn’t just about who can shout loudest; it’s about listening effectively and choosing what to say and how to say it. Perhaps it’s time to debate debates.