Most students get excited when they see “work period” or “movie” written on the board upon entering class. I get excited when I see the word “debate”. In my classes we don’t follow a formal debate procedure, like a debate team would, so some could argue (pun intended) that our debates are just organized arguments. Still, I think they’re a great way to think critically, learn how to share your own opinions, and learn from the views of others.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from debates is that if you want to be successful, you need to keep an open mind. The topics I debate in my classes in school are debate topics for a reason: they don’t have a clear answer. Often, we have to move to one side of the room if we agree with a topic, and the other side if we disagree; it’s not uncommon for the room to be evenly split in half, or with a large group of students hovering in the “I don’t know” middle ground. Because the issues are so complicated, when I’m arguing my beliefs I always try to take into account the viewpoints of the people on the other side. Not only do I learn more from doing this but it strengthens my argument, since it shows that I am not ignorant of the opposing opinions.
Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean I agree with the other side, though. A few weeks ago, my law class was having a debate about whether or not affirmative action programs should be mandatory. Someone said something that was the exact opposite of what I was arguing, and I had mentally crafted my response. Before I began speaking, I took a deep breath and said, “I understand what you’re saying, but, respectfully, I disagree entirely.” This statement earned me some laughs from my classmates, but I think it also framed my response as one coming from a place of understanding and willingness for genuine debate and learning, instead of simply being rude and discounting the other person’s opinion.
Although I love being in debates, I don’t always love witnessing them. Ask anyone in my family, and they’ll tell you that I often become frustrated while watching political debates on the news. Candidates rarely directly answer the question they’re asked. They start out on a little detour, and then commit themselves to taking the scenic route – and by the end of it, they’re talking about the second amendment when the question was about Obamacare. Plus, there are some certain candidates – I trust you’ll know who I’m referring to – who don’t share my views on open-mindedness and the value of polite responses.
There’s a simple concept, one I try hard to follow when I debate in school, that some politicians haven’t grasped yet. It’s this: you never know who is in the room with you. Because of this, you need to be careful with what you say. I do this by imagining that the people who are affected by what I am talking about are in the room with me. For example, if I’m debating about socioeconomic statuses, I imagine there’s someone who struggles socioeconomically in the room (there very well might be – you’d be surprised what you can’t tell about someone by looking at them). If I’m arguing about immigration, I imagine there’s someone who is an immigrant in the room. Obviously, I don’t try to censor myself; but a moderate amount of caution when speaking about sensitive topics goes a long way (something some political candidates have learned the hard way).
Another valuable thing to keep in mind when debating, even informally among friends, is the idea of privilege and the personal bias that stems from it. When my law class was debating about affirmative action programs, we zeroed in on affirmative action for First Nations peoples. I could speak for a while on my opinion about that – but ultimately, my opinion isn’t the most important one to listen to. I haven’t faced the barriers they have, or had the experiences they have had. I’m not in a position to assert my opinion as the ultimate truth; because I have a bias in that I’m Caucasian. I probably wouldn’t need an affirmative action program to ensure I am hired somewhere. And this is something I need to acknowledge, if only to myself, when I debate; because without recognizing privilege, issues – especially those concerning equity – can become very muddy, very quickly.
Debates, especially those without a formal structure, can quickly spiral out of control. Despite best efforts, it is all too easy to offend someone. While that old saying promises that only sticks and stones can break bones, and that words can’t really hurt someone, I’d beg to differ: words can be devastatingly offensive, even if the speaker didn’t intend them to be that way. So when you’re talking to your friends, or debating in class or another setting, try to keep an open mind. Be polite; imagine the people affected by the issue you’re talking about are listening to you speak; and recognize the privileges you have. By doing these things, you maximize your potential for a productive debate – and you separate yourself from that fake-tan-obsessed politician who, seemingly, has yet to learn the value of a little consideration.