Debate is great for sharpening the mind, but I worry that really skilled debaters might internalize the idea that the point of discussion and debate is victory, rather than truth. In debate, if you encounter a compelling counterargument, you just try to find a way around it.
But you should argue for truth, not for victory.
Really good debaters run the risk of ignoring valid counterarguments.”
professor Robert George: constitutional-law professor
falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus
I am a self-proclaimed contrarian and … well … contrarians end up debating … a lot. Let me be clear. If you suck at debating, you will be a sucky contrarian.
If you cannot debate, you simply are an opinionated person with a non-mainstream point of view sitting angrily in some office or at some desk thinking everyone is just not smart enough, and as smart as you, because they just can’t see what you see.
That said. I have never had a desire to be angry nor staring at my own non-mainstream point of view piling up on my desk unused.
I am a self-proclaimed contrarian and … well … contrarians use truth … a lot.
Let me be clear. If you suck at telling the truth, clearly & concisely & unequivocally, you will be a sucky contrarian. Truth is at the core of being a successful contrarian. Contrarians, simply by offering a contrary thought, find themselves constantly on the defensive defending the thought. This happens even if you go on the offensive. This happens because contrary ideas & thoughts feel a little less comfortable, less familiar and riskier, therefore, people will inherently want to pick it apart. There is where ‘false’ haunts a contrarian. One falsehood is not just one falsehood. One falsehood implies others are there only yet to be found. If you cannot be an unequivocal truth teller you are simply a peddler of possibilities and, well, true contrarians thrive on making possibilities realities.
I have never had a desire to be angry nor staring at my own non-mainstream hopeful possibilities piling up on my desk unused.
All that said. When I saw the quote, I opened with I had to sit back a little and think — think about how, as a contrarian, the debate is used or not used.
Many contrarians focus on what I would call ‘the bookends’ — what their idea/thinking is and the ultimate outcomes — and judge themselves on that.
It is quite possible we contrarians should focus on ‘how they play the game’ or how they debate, because I frankly don’t give a shit what you preach nor whether you eventually benefit from what you preach as long as what you preach is grounded in integrity & fair play & truth, what you actually do and how you behave is grounded in integrity & fair play & truth and what you preach isn’t just preaching but rather a thought which inspires additional thinking .
If you do it right, if you debate it right, then you, and the idea itself will benefit in that if the idea & thinking gets adopted in some form or fashion you will have done so as an outcome of what you preached, what you debated and how you behaved during the debate.
But here is where the opening quote really made me think — contrarianism is like a drug. When you have a contrarian idea and it is actually a good idea you can get caught up in the debate. You can start getting what I sometimes call “horizon blindness.” Horizon blindness is when you are so focused on the end destination and getting to the end destination you treat almost anything said, and any objection, as simply an obstacle to getting to the horizon … possibly ignoring any of the value being offered within the debate.
Even the best contrarians can get horizon blindness. Suffice it to say the best contrarians can be aware of what is at exactly the same time as where they want to be. iI permits some ‘cooperative arguments’ which help build a better idea at the conclusion and some ownership within all involved at the conclusion.
Here is what I think about being a great contrarian.
• Scrupulously fair.
Contrarians have to walk a fine line. They rarely are flippant with a contrarian idea, therefore, can be dogged in its defense. Yet, they must be fair to the idea, the beauty of thinking itself and what others think & say.
In fact, you have to almost relentlessly be fair to everything else around you … scrupulously fair as a matter of fact.
• Not domineering with beliefs.
This is a fine line to a contrarian. Frankly, any contrarian idea cannot step lightly into the fray. If it does, it gets suffocated by the familiar, the status quo & the easier path. But the key word in what I suggested is “beliefs.” Any contrarian idea is constructed with a number of beliefs. The truth is that all beliefs reserve the right to not only be challenged but also changed. Therefore, dominating with a belief, in the contrarian world, is just asking for trouble, in addition, it is the wrong thing to do if you truly want the best idea at the end.
• Cooperative argumentative dialogue.
The Socratic method. Every truly good contrarian I have ever met has been a master at the ongoing cooperative argument. They have been adaptive in the debate, flexible in the flow and adept at finding seemingly irrelevant factoids and making them relevant at the appropriate moment.
• Thinking tutor.
I want to be careful here because this is not to suggest contrarians are better thinkers or smarter thinkers and that they, and only they, can be the professors of thinking. What I am suggesting is that contrarians, in general, do think differently and they see things slightly differently. This means when you do it right, when you debate well & fairly & cooperatively, other people seem to walk away thinking about things in a slightly different way.
• Relentless truth teller
One lie, one-half truth, one ‘truthful hyperbole, and the whole house of cards tumbles down. Great contrarians are great pivoters away from what they do not know. what I mean is that instead of offering a ‘lie’ when faced with not knowing something they typically place an “I don’t know” on the table and pivot to a “but here is what I do know” and place a truth on the table where the “I don’t know” used to be. Key to what I just shared is a slavish attachment to truth … even at the expense of an “I don’t know.” contrarians realize the game being played is chess and you will sacrifice a piece rather than imperil the entire board.
That’s it. When I saw the quote I opened with I loved the nuance in the description of debate and made me think that maybe we, in business, misuse the concept. We may really debate in business … and maybe we shouldn’t be debating. Maybe we should be arguing for truth, not for victory.
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This post previously published on Enlightened Conflict and is reprinted with the permission of the author.
Photo courtesy Unsplash.