The reasons behind the shift are numerous – and range from decreasing attention spans to unprecedented access to information – but the art of debate appears to be in serious decline. By debate, I’m not referring to the practice of ‘contradiction’ which is enjoying its biggest revival since the days of Monty Python, thanks largely to Twitter.
No, by debate I’m referring to the process through which discussions are initiated and maintained; opinions are exchanged and substantiated – and alternative opinions assessed. And this art is slowly being eroded; I see evidence in the media, on social media, even in conversations at work and home. Genuine debate is being replaced by a form of ‘intellect free’ exhibitionism, devoid of any thesis and antitheses that defined the practice for over 2,000 years. We are entering an age of ‘Argument Lite’; the intellectual equivalent of decaffeinated coffee or 0% beer. In other words, no substitute for the genuine article.
The public relations industry should be concerned about this decline; true debate is the basis of our profession. This trend is so disarmingly evident, that I’ve attempted to classify the most common types of debate substitution; these practices are not limited to politics, examples abound in the worlds of business, finance, economics, and consumerism. See if you recognise any:
- The personal experience; the ‘I visited xx and didn’t feel any danger’, ‘My cousin met xx and she appeared to be a delightful person’, ‘I use xx service every day, therefore it must be good…’ Direct insight is always useful, but it’s not an equivalent for reasoned argument.
- The partisan defence; often linked with the ‘theory of everything’ logic (see below). I’m a republican, socialist, naturalist, Manchester United fan; therefore I’ll always default to that particular position…on everything. Again, discussion reduced to a simplistic ‘synaptic’ response is no substitute for analysis.
- The single issue activist; another avatar for the ‘theory of everything’ and also inked to the ‘conspiracy theorist’ approach to discussion. Here, any debate is reduced to a single, central event or issue through which the day’s events can be viewed. Whether it be colonialism, or organised religion, or industrialisation, or the French revolution, or the fall of the Berlin Wall…today’s realities are simply a consequence. Social media seems to fuel such activism; everything from Israel winning the Eurovision Song contest to Italy failing to qualify for the World Cup are simply the consequences of a previous conspiracy.
- The ‘emotional card’; argument reduced to heart-rending anecdotes is the favourite technique of broadcast journalists. Such images are great for ratings, but do little to advance intelligent debate.
- ‘Reductionalist’ logic; the belief that everything can be explained in 140 (or 280) characters, and that anything else is just prevarication. The idea that intrigues of literature, philosophy, art, science…have been made irrelevant by the arrival of Twitter is as terrifying as it is absurd!
These are a few of the argument ‘placebos’ that are currently in vogue. We owe it to our profession (and to society as a whole) to resist such tendencies. The easiest way is to remember that any discussion is as much for our benefit as for that of our interlocutor; this process should ensure that we are constantly assessing and verifying our own ideas.
Real discussions are not only about convincing another party, they are also a manner through which to see the world as others see it, whether or not we agree with them; this is the essence of public relations.