OWhen I left South Korea for Australia at the age of eight, I learned that the worst part about crossing language borders was adapting to live conversation – to its fast and superimposed and its many about-turns. Once spun, the best I could do was wait for a change of subject or a long pause to regain my footing. Stumbling over vague words and broken sentences, I never got far.
It was a problem because there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about my new home – why all public figures (including politicians) introduced themselves as sports fans, why strangers were called “friends “, why no food was spicy. Unable to ask questions, let alone raise objections, I began to smile distantly and retreat into the private recesses of my mind.
When I expressed my frustrations to mom and dad, they told me to be empathetic: “Try to imagine things from their point of view.” Teachers described empathy as a characteristic of model students; in church, the pastor spoke of it as a divine virtue. In my mind, empathy took on the mythical allure of a panacea, but it remained elusive in real life. The differences between my peers and me seemed to pose a distance too great to bridge.
Things changed for me when I joined my elementary school‘s debate team. I had been drawn into the activity by the promise of attention – a few minutes that I could talk uninterrupted. But I also discovered a treasure trove of wisdom, including a new way of thinking about empathy.
I pursued these ideas for 15 years, winning two world championships and coaching national debate teams from Harvard and Australia along the way. The experience led me to become a journalist and now a law student. It left me convinced that debate can help us improve our lives and our communities in these polarized times.
Consider the rules of debate: two sides are randomly assigned to argue for and against a topic – say, we should abolish student debt. Each speaker has equal speaking time in front of an impartial referee, who rewards the most persuasive team.
To win a debate, you must not only understand your own cause but also that of the other party. The best debaters arrive at such double vision through a strict process. In the last moments of preparation before a round, they go through a series of exercises called “side-switch”.
One is to pull out a new sheet of paper, stand opposite the subject, and think of the four best arguments for this new position. Another is to examine one’s own case through the eyes of an opponent, considering the strongest possible objections.
The exercise provides a wealth of strategic information, but also has an important side effect. For a while, we debaters feel what it’s like to believe ideas that contradict our own. We trace the steps that a sensible person (like us) can take to arrive at conclusions that might seem alien. From this switched position, we consider the possibility that we were wrong.
Together, these aspects of switching sides form an unusual view of empathy. While most people think of empathy as a spontaneous psychic connection or reflection of virtue, debaters know it as understanding gained through a series of actions. It is the result and the reward of work.
Any group – be it a family, a workplace or a nation – has to manage its disagreements, but today so many of our arguments are hostile, unnecessary and painful. We are, in a word, stuck, shouting at a distance, fixed in our respective places. The resulting enmity and contempt undermines the fundamental aspiration of liberal democracy: to build a society around, not in spite of, people’s differences.
Habits of the mind like the side switch can help unblock us. They dislodge our complacency and force us to consider the other side, not to avoid disagreeing, but to better disagree. They require neither genius nor virtue, only paper and a pen.
There are many other lessons in debate—from building (and dismantling) arguments to deciding when a dispute is worth it—that can help us disagree better in everyday life. Activity trains us to change the minds of others with nothing more than words. It reveals the physics of our disagreements, so even school-aged children can handle them.
Although this education has always been the mainstay of the elites, many elders have found in the debate the resources to overcome the disadvantages. Incoming U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said of her time as a debater, “I’ve acquired the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and men to acquire. minorities at an early age”.
In practice, few activities are more effective than debate in discovering flaws in our thinking and then prompting us to fix them. For this reason, entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on internal dissent. Investor Warren Buffett once proposed that corporate boards hire two advisers on potential acquisitions — one to advocate for the deal and one to oppose it. Netflix’s “culture” memo contains the following line: “The more important the decision, the deeper the debate.”
It is not an innovation. Competitive debate originated in English pubs and cafes which, from the 17th century, hosted lively discussions of the business of parliament. Its roots go back to the ancient Greek custom of participation through prayer.
In our age of polarization, we have lost shared values and truths, but we have also lost the skills of thoughtful, empathetic argument – and the will to invest in it. While widespread disillusionment with traditional institutions has coincided with a decline in trust in our fellow citizens, an ethic of “finding our people” (and ignoring the rest) has come to dominate.
Reflecting on the value of debate in such moments, I find myself returning to the concept of empathy. The side drills mirror in miniature the training that debaters receive. Over a fairly long career, debaters debate on both sides of most current issues. Choosing neither their camp nor the subject, they flirt with ideas, without expecting coherence or deep conviction.
Certainly, the ability of debaters to argue both sides of every issue has its downsides. Throughout the public sphere, we see the corrosive effect of mercenary rhetoric. Silver-tongued politicians make an art of bowing to the prevailing winds. Unscrupulous media pundits make fake comparisons and advance the agenda of the highest bidders. In this context, the news that Boris Johnson once wrote an op-ed in favor of staying in the European Union, as a tool for brainstorming, is fraught with cynicism and despair. The Oxford Union debates, where Johnson and his peers trained, now appear online with the following disclaimer: “The speaker in this video is a competitive debater and therefore the views expressed do not necessarily represent their beliefs.”
Indeed, most debaters experience, at some point in their career, doubts about the ethics of their sport. Novelist Sally Rooney wrote in the Dublin Review of her career as a debate champion: “I no longer found it fun to think about the ways capitalism benefits the poor, or the things oppressed people should do about their oppression. In fact, I found it depressing and vaguely immoral. Some experienced competitors describe themselves as Hamlets, able to see both sides but unable to commit to either.
I do not believe this debate is hostile to conviction but I see that it forces us to rethink the term. The conventional view is that strong beliefs are what we bring into a discussion. In debate, beliefs are what we get out of such a conversation. The goal is not to save our previous beliefs, but to play and experiment until we come across ideas worthy of our commitment. Such exploration can lead to confusion and indecision. It also avoids the false clarity of dogma.
Debate can allow fakes and opportunists. This aspect of the business – its showmanship and emphasis on experimentation – requires careful management. But while the debate elevates some mercenaries, it also trains the rest of us to recognize and counter their tactics. It immunizes the population against the abuse of language and argument.
I knew none of this when I came across my school’s debate team. However, I felt that I could be on the cusp of a great transformation. As I sat on stage in the meeting room, jotting down the best arguments for the other side, I felt the distance between me and my opponents begin to shrink. Then, as I stood and faced the hushed silence of the assembled crowd, I felt my voice, green and insistent, ready to announce itself.
The Art of Well Not Agree by Bo Seo (William Collins, £18.99). Buy it for £16.52 at guardianbookshop.com