Beyond Changing Opinions: The Enduring Impact of Debate
Even if you make no progress in changing anyone else’s mind, you may end up changing your own. Debate is like a stone that sharpens a blade. By forcing you to defend your arguments in a rigorous way, it compels you to think more deeply about them.
Are you among the millions of Americans who, in the year or so since the 2016 presidential election, have found themselves shaking with frustration at the refusal of a friend, family member, or colleague to accept a premise that seems beyond dispute? Have you argued, over Thanksgiving dinner or on social media, until one of you stormed away huffing and red in the face? Do you despair at the seemingly hopeless task of reconciling your own beliefs with those of the other half of the country? Well, I have bad news, good news, and a bit of advice for you.
The bad news is that a logical argumentation is not a particularly effective tool for changing the mind of a person you’re arguing with. I say this as a dedicated debater and teacher of debate. Unfortunately, what we know of human psychology suggests that directly challenging a person’s beliefs can even have the opposite effect, further entrenching those beliefs and making them more resistant to change. People circle the wagons, so to speak, when they feel attacked. They close their minds, and in the process of arguing they often come to hold their original beliefs even more strongly.
The good news is that it can be done. Changing someone’s mind isn’t easy, and you should be prepared to fail any time you take up the task, especially if you’re arguing with a stranger on social media. But to the extent that it’s possible, it requires patience and a clear goal.
We must understand a debate – the direct clash of ideas and arguments – as a single moment in a larger process. The goal is not to provoke an abrupt, dramatic admission of defeat, but rather to plant a seed that might, over time, spread a productive sort of doubt and prompt further reflection on the part of your interlocutor. In a public forum like social media, you may also sow this seed in others who see the debate, even if they do not actively engage in it.
The goal is not to provoke an admission of defeat, but rather to spread a productive sort of doubt in your interlocutor.
People are open to persuasion, and logical argumentation can be the impetus for it, but it must be paired with time for reflection. I know that debate can prompt this kind of reflection, because it happened to me.
Debate has been important to me for almost as long as I can remember. I was a nationally competitive debater in high school and college. As an undergraduate, I worked for the Chicago Debate League teaching argumentation skills to Chicago Public Schools students. When I graduated, I started a similar organization in Boston and spent years working with public high school students there. I currently help the Bay Area Urban Debate League promote debate to hundreds of middle and high school students.
As a teenager, I described myself as an Objectivist. I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged after seeing it on a list of the best novels of the 20th century – I had no idea what it was about or that it was really more of a philosophical manifesto than a novel. But I was taken in.
It spoke to me, as a smart kid who often felt that my intelligence was a social liability among my peers. Rand coupled her unapologetic elitism with an absolutist approach to property rights and the virtue of selfishness. It was a sort of philosophical libertarianism, distinct from the Republican party of the time in that it also advocated a laissez-faire government stance on social issues such as gay marriage (Rand held that the government had no place sanctioning marriages in the first place, really).
At an age when I was eager to rebel against my left-leaning family and community, I subscribed eagerly to these notions and soon was making a nuisance of myself to anyone who would listen (and, I imagine, many who would have preferred not to) as I railed about the injustice of the antitrust suit against Microsoft and dreamt of becoming a corporate lawyer so that I could defend tobacco companies against the tyrannical government. I credit debate with breaking Rand’s hold on my young mind, by exposing me to — and forcing me to reflect on — some perspectives I might never otherwise have encountered.
The national debate topic for my senior year of high school had to do with education policy. My debate partner and I began the year advocating for the use of busing to desegregate public high schools.
While this policy may not have squared with my political philosophy at the time, strategically, it was a sound choice. After all, the harm of segregation was hard to dispute, so we didn’t worry about losing debates there. Where we expected to be vulnerable was on the question of whether we could actually solve the problem of segregation, given the failure of previous efforts.
This already was a prompt for some research and reflection. My partner and I, white students at a public high school in a solidly middle-class suburb of Baltimore, broadly agreed that segregation was a bad thing. But the truth was that we knew virtually nothing about why it existed or the history of attempts to combat it. We had to learn that history in order to formulate a defensible plan for fixing it.
We learned about “white flight” – white families migrating from racially mixed cities to homogenous suburbs in order to avoid desegregation orders. We learned that the Supreme Court had ruled, in the case of Milliken v Bradley, that desegregation orders could not cross school district lines. In other words, if there were majority-black and majority-white schools in the same district, it would be permissible to bus students between those schools for the purpose of integrating them. But if those schools were in different districts, then they could not be desegregated in this way. This was what enabled white families to “escape” desegregation orders by moving to segregated suburbs.
I thought of my own family history. Both of my parents grew up in Baltimore City and attended Catholic schools. I myself was born in the city, though we moved to the county when I was 3, so that my brother and I could attend better public schools. The high school I attended was actually not overwhelmingly white, but my classes – I was in a “gifted and talented” track – certainly were. Tracking students within schools, we learned, was another trick to subvert desegregation.
Anticipating that critiques of our plan would focus on the failures of past segregation efforts, we decided to advocate for overturning the Milliken v Bradley decision and allowing inter-district desegregation orders. This would effectively render toothless many of the lines of attack that we expected other debaters to have prepared against desegregation.
This proved to be a sound strategy, and we enjoyed a good amount of success with this case… until we got blindsided, in much the same way that we’d sought to blindside others. As well prepared as we were to defend the effectiveness of our plan in combating segregation, we were less prepared to defend the claim that segregation was a problem in need of fixing.
That’s not to say that we were caught completely off-guard – that would be amateurish. But we were prepared for the stock conservative objections, those related to local control, individual choice and, freedom of association. What we were not prepared for were arguments rooted in Afrocentrism, which is exactly what one clever team hit us with.
I’d learned a bit about folks like Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers in history class, but to me they represented failed ideas long consigned to the dustbin of history. I knew nothing about Afrocentrism as a contemporary ideology and was completely unprepared to refute the claims that busing stigmatized black schools, put an unfair burden on black students, and disrupted black communities and their culture.
When I heard these arguments, I was first confused, then flabbergasted. But a good debater is never speechless. Like a hitter running out a pop fly, my partner and I did our best to defend our case, but it was hopeless. I look back on this as one of the more lopsided losses of my career.
Even so, my mind wasn’t changed. When it came to Afrocentrism, the only thing I was convinced of was that I needed to research and understand it before our next debate. It’s one thing to lose to an argument you never saw coming, but top debaters aim never to lose to the same argument twice. Either you find good answers, or you accept that there are no good answers and find a new, more defensible position.
Either you find good answers, or you accept that there are no good answers and find a new, more defensible position.
I began reading about Afrocentric philosophies of education. I learned that there were Afrocentric educators, Afrocentric curricula, and proponents of all-black Afrocentric schools.
My research also led me to Critical Race Theory, an approach to legal analysis that begins with the assumption that racism infuses the American legal system and that all aspects of the law must be approached with this in mind. I found legal scholars of color critical of virtually every landmark civil rights law and case.
They argued, in essence, that the law cannot genuinely advance the interests of an oppressed minority. The real beneficiaries of affirmative action were white women, not black people. The real beneficiaries of court-ordered busing were the white owners of bus companies, not the black students who spent hours every day on buses to arrive at schools where they were out of place and unwelcome. Even Brown v Board of Education, they argued, was ultimately about geopolitics, not civil rights; the United States was seeking to combat Soviet propaganda that pointed to segregated schools as an example of the evils of capitalism.
I’m not necessarily presenting any of the above as true (or false, for that matter). But it’s one thing to understand and disagree with an argument, and another thing entirely to never even have considered that argument, which is the camp I’d been in.
A single debate didn’t change my mind on the spot, but it was the impetus for me to explore a whole world of arguments, ideas, and perspectives I’d never considered: that race shapes the perceptions and the experiences of all Americans; that ignoring race will not make it go away but rather more deeply entrench inequality; that racism is a matter not only of individual belief but of institutions and structures that maintain inequality without the active direction of any individual.
A single debate didn’t change my mind on the spot, but it was the impetus for me to explore a whole world of arguments, ideas, and perspectives I’d never considered.
I found no good answers to these critiques in any of the libertarian philosophy with which I was so enamored. And so, over time, my previous beliefs eroded. I found their underlying tenets increasingly difficult to maintain. How could people who truly believed in property rights above all else not be in favor of compensating black Americans for the myriad ways in which their property rights were and continued to be violated? How would I take seriously the claim that America was a meritocracy and all success earned through hard work, when I could so clearly see that the playing field was not level?
It certainly didn’t hurt that adopting this “Critical Race Theory” persona still satisfied my desire for teenage intellectual rebellion. But there’s no doubt that a single debate set into motion a process of reflection that ultimately led me to change my views fundamentally, and a lot of what I learned in that time still informs how I think today.
Finally, it’s worth noting that even if you make no progress in changing anyone else’s mind, you may end up changing your own. Debate is like a stone that sharpens a blade. By forcing you to defend your arguments in a rigorous way, it compels you to think more deeply about them, to research, and perhaps even to come to the difficult realization that they are in fact indefensible and therefore must be changed.