When I was kid growing up in the United States my parents used to watch a TV programme on Saturday mornings that disturbed me a great deal.
The show was called Firing Line and basically it was a political debate on some current topic that featured right-wing writer William F. Buckley spewing the conservative view while left-wing author Gore Vidal countered with his ultra-liberal take on the same issue.
What disturbed me was the fact that while I was listening to Buckley his arguments made perfect sense, and then when Vidal got rolling, his views seemed to be obviously correct as well despite the fact the two men always seemed to be in total disagreement. It just didn’t add up and I worried there might be something wrong with my reasoning power.
Perhaps you have had similar feelings watching panel discussions or listening to political candidates with very different views argue their cases. Don’t worry too much if you have, I think it is quite common, but I do think it would be a good idea to take a closer look at how politicians and other professional debaters form their arguments so we might be able to recognise what they are doing and identify their assumptions and opinions so we can separate them from the cold hard facts.
My personal view is that skilled debaters can be quite dangerous since some of these men and women are very capable of getting their points of view accepted even when they don’t have many – or even any – facts to back up their arguments.
Anyway, here’s how they tend to approach a topic. It’s totally backwards; instead of having an open mind they start by deciding how they stand on an issue then they look for facts to back up their case while intentionally ignoring all facts that don’t support it. Then they look for grey areas that can be twisted and interpreted in a way that suits their purpose and they try to sell their opinions and those of supposedly qualified authorities as given facts, which of course they aren’t.
The really big weapon in the debater’s arsenal, however, is the assumption. If he can get his audience to buy into the right assumptions he is pretty much home and dry. For example; if you can get your audience to buy the assumption that all me are basically evil it will be pretty easy to prove that one individual is evil; and this is where Buckley and Vidal got me. Buckley assumed politicians were bad and businessmen were good while Vidal had it the other way around.
That’s good because the really scary thing is these tactics are not confined to the political arena or to debating society competitions, they are also used in our everyday relationships. So as well as helping us sift through some of the political rubbish we hear and read, being aware of debating tactics could also help us in our personal lives – especially if we take a close look at how we form our own arguments.