A day after the State of the Union address has the internet lit up. Everyone has an opinion, and many of them want to state it. Topics range from the substance of the address to how it was presented and ultimately how it is received in the nation given a varying degree of relevance.
It’s entirely possible to go through this point by point and make some kind of alternative statement about the state of the union as I see it. But that seems to miss the main point. Our nation is fractured and unfocused. Why? Before we debate this topic, it seems reasonable to go back to the main purpose of debate in the first place, a fundamental skill necessary for an open, free, and democratic society.
The purpose of debate is to learn.
Debate, as we have come to know it in the western world, was given a place of prominence in the Athenian world circa 2,500 years ago. It was generally believed that if you talk about something long enough, with enough skill, you will eventually uncover logical fallacies or assumptions and thus arrive at the truth.
This is the essence of the Socratic Method of teaching, where student and master start on a nearly equal footing – at least rhetorically. The role of teacher is more as a guide to the conversation, and the title is essentially earned by the masterful use of logic and organization.
Athens famously built a political system on this principle, which we still have in use today. Leadership is earned and more importantly consensus is built through a process by which everyone eventually has the same view of what is true and what a reasonable course of action might be. In this application, however, the purpose essentially remains that of learning – learning the other side, your own side’s weakness, and together learning the truth.
In our world today, we have lost this basic underpinning of democracy.
Debates are to be “won” in America today. The exact purpose of “winning” is very unclear most of the time, but at a governmental level it is for the exercise of policy and power. Outside of that, it is utterly pointless. We were given a system that requires consensus in order to accomplish anything, and yet the process of developing consensus has been largely discarded. Indeed, one of the great tools of consensus making, compromise, is often expressed as a synonym for weakness and surrender.
Democratically elected representatives from diverse regional, cultural, ethnic, gender, and other life experiences should be attempting to build a greater understanding of each other. Each has something to teach from their own unique perspective. Instead, each attempts to dominate the other for the purpose of getting their way. Rhetoric is simple a tool of warfare, not learning, in such a situation.
You may well ask what the purpose is of this particular piece on the nature of debate itself in that light.
My only hope has always been to be of some kind of service to our changing world. I see it falling apart and largely incapable of moving forward to a world that genuinely provides happiness and keeps bellies full. To that end, I have come to believe that I have something to teach the world. This is presented as one side of a Socratic debate for the purpose of letting it be ripped apart, if possible.
So have at it. Please.
I put it to you today that democracy is failing in a rapidly changing situation, made ever more complex by greater interdependence over a large number of people, because we have lost our ability to learn from each other. If that statement is wrong, please let me know how. This perspective can then be modified to be more accurate, or possibly dropped if it is unfixable.
That is how debate is supposed to work. It is about learning, first and foremost. And it is that capacity to learn and develop consensus that makes a democracy work. Without it, the state of our union is that it is failing at a fundamental level.