As part of the debate team, I learned the techniques of good argumentation and the secrets of effective communication, from building a point of view to discerning which ideas to challenge and which to drop. I found a way to survive and even thrive in a country that values the ability to fight back in an argument. I started to hear in the irregular beats of the discussion a certain kind of music.
I continued those lessons for over 15 years, winning two world championships, coaching the Australian and Harvard national debate teams, and now publishing a book about how debate can teach us better to disagree in our daily lives. Back in Australia on my literary tour, I reflected on the opportunities and challenges facing a nation that has made argument a national pastime.
Australia is perhaps the best place in the world to learn the debate. The very first World High School Debating Championships were held in this country in 1988, and Australia has since won the annual competition more than any other country. Australian universities regularly outperform top-ranked institutions such as Oxbridge and Ivy League universities. Figures such as Gough Whitlam, Michael Kirby and Annabel Crabb were former debaters.
This record of success owes, no doubt, to the Australian education system and culture of free speech. This may stem from Australia’s status as a middle power on the periphery of the world – a position that grants a critical distance and a sense of irony that larger metropolises lack.
Such a strong culture of debate strengthens our country. Good arguments can unearth, and then sharpen, the best ideas. They can help us form relationships and communities around our differences, not in spite of them. If Australia resists this global period of authoritarian resurgence, its resilience will be due, in part, to its willingness to call out, refute and laugh at bullshit. As George Orwell wrote of his native England, the goose step cannot be used in countries where “people in the street would laugh”.
Today, our argumentative culture faces serious challenges. The spread of misinformation and disinformation erodes the shared truths that should form the basis of our disagreements. Political polarization sows distrust among citizens and reduces room for compromise and collective action. Meanwhile, the mass communication channels – social media and partisan media – seem to amplify only the loudest voices.
These challenges contribute to two impending crises in our public conversation. The most visible is that too many of our arguments – on the internet, at work or at home – are painful and unnecessary. The hidden crisis that some people who watch these ugly shows have and will resolve to back out of the discussion altogether.
Protecting good disagreements from these headwinds forces us to remember at least three things. First, as competitive debating teaches us, arguing is a skill, not just an act or event. The right to grumble and object is a cornerstone of our democracy, but also its shadow: the responsibility to learn, practice, and care to disagree.
Second, we must beware of the temptation to dispute – criticize the ideas of others without advancing an alternative solution. In debate, we follow even the most scathing rebuttal with a counterclaim, or an answer to the question “if not that, then what?” When we arise from the rest of the critic and offer a positive argument, we expose ourselves to attack; but we gain a more productive conversation.
Third, we should not substitute discussion for the substantive actions it should precede.
Conversation can develop ideas, form consensus, and otherwise lay the groundwork for effective action; but a debate on the protection of human rights is not the same as the protection of human rights. If intelligence allows us to disagree well, wisdom advises us to know when to argue and when to stop. Both begin with a better understanding of the debate and its limits.
Noel Pearson once said that Australia’s story is made up of three strands – Aboriginal heritage, British institutions and multicultural migration – which weave together into an “epic story”. Such a country should understand better than anyone that the stakes of managing our disagreements are nothing less than existential. Good arguments are not only what good democracies do, but what they are.
Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and former coach of the Australian National Debating Team and the Harvard College Debating Union. His book Good arguments is published by Simon and Schuster.
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