Think Like A Debater

From the recent US Presidential Elections, across Europe to back home in India, people are getting increasingly polarised. Positions are becoming ever more absolute and the common ground is fast disappearing. This break down is ironic in an age where advancements in science and technology have expanded the common grounds like never before. Political and societal discourse has never been accessible to so many people and amenities like health, education and transportation are reaching ever more people through revolutionary disruption. Yet the progressives and intellectual elite across borders with conviction their commitment to the bottom tier of society continue to entrench themselves into their bubbles, condescending upon the middle income masses which are increasingly turning right. On the other hand, the expanding wing of right leaning populations are willing to barter away the accountability of their leaders and the logical depth of their arguments in response to perceived alienation, driven by the hunger for expedient solutions.

GROUND ZERO: Bollywoodization Of The Mass Psyche

When I first took up Parliamentary Debating in 2009, I carried with me the tremendous baggage of hard opinions most people do by virtue of a lifetime spent absorbing the world views of those around us. It starts with our parents telling us right from wrong, which initially applies to useful life hacks like not putting your finger in a socket, but soon transcends to an indoctrination into their political framework and views on various societal issues. Similarly, as we go through life, our friends impart us with precious wisdom on the sexes, eventually piling us with further edicts on what is ‘cool’ and what isn’t. Most of us just take this train ride through our years incrementally forming and entrenching our opinions as we traverse coffee breaks at work spaces and living rooms that resonate with the views we hold or attacking those that don’t.

Those of us that do manage to deviate from our initial position, end up usually inverting to the converse extreme position as a result of a changed socio-political environment at our place of education or work. The casualties in this exercise of forming opinions are nuance, engagement and the middle ground. So immense is the desire in our minds to break things into right and wrong, that it becomes virtually impossible to analyse the inherent merits and demerits of a given situation and let it stand in a grey region somewhere between the absolutes. Unfortunately, this is the space occupied by most issues in life and the world.

This process of opinionation and the entrenched desire to see things as right and wrong has lead to the greater information and discourse brought along by this age of social networks and expanded media, turning into tools of polarisation rather than engagement and enlightenment. Instead of greater discourse elevating the societal understanding of matters, it is adopting a least common denominator approach, driving this race to the bottom. The result is evident. Demagogues that reduce protracted issues into over simplistic punchlines, with their promises of instant justice are taking over as the arbitrators of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and the representatives and executors of public will. We are fuelling the rise of the Arnabs and Trumps along with the fire that burns all semblance of logic and nuance.

As a fledgling debater, I was armed with my iron clad opinions on everything from reservation and Kashmir to the Israel-Palestine issue. When given a choice of topics to debate, I’d pick the motion and the side that coincided with my personal stance on the issue. Conviction is the battering ram of close mindedness and I was busy weaponising it as a debater.

STEP ONE: De-Opinionation

The inflection point came at a debate, early in my debating career. I was teaming with a senior and we ended up in a debate proposing reservation. Watching me struggle, he asked me what was wrong. I told him I believed too strongly against reservation to be able to come up with a compelling argument for our case. He then said something, which in hindsight may seem obvious, but at the time had a profound effect on me. He told me that before entering a debate, I need to leave my baggage of opinions outside the room and start thinking with a clean slate.

In order to think like a debater, I needed to divorce myself from any and all notions and opinions I may have on a matter and set up a framework in my mind based on pure logic and whatever facts I may have at my disposal. Within this paradigm, I would find the arguments I needed to build my case. It worked! Once you strip an issue down to its logical underpinnings and bare facts, it becomes much easier to think analytically about it. Confirmation bias, sentiments, perceived proximity to a cause & relatability are factors that cloud the ability to think purely analytically about an issue and limit our intellectual horizon.

To apply this to life in general, we need to start with a small exercise in our heads. Every time you’re contemplating an issue in your head, compel your mind to play the Devil’s advocate. Feel like India should go to war with Pakistan over the most recent act of terror perpetrated on Indian soil? Clear out your mind and start thinking of arguments for not going to war. Initially, you’ll face resistance in your head to develop a meaningful case that goes against the grain of your current thought process. However, you’ll soon be able to overcome the gag reflex and think intuitively on both sides of an issue. Your mind responds to the challenge of presenting a defence for “the other side” by getting competitive with itself. It identifies the standing case in your mind as the standard to defeat and assumes an alter ego to defend the opposing case. You then feel a sense of ownership over the arguments born out of this exercise, thereby empowering you to weigh it equitably with you standing views on the matter. Over time, you’ll develop an instinct to think analytically in the face of extreme polarisation.

STEP TWO: Overcoming The Binary

While deconstructing a polarised position on one side of a binary is an important first step, it’s crucial to acknowledge that almost all issues we encounter in life are non-binary. Any decision we make, opinion we hold or question that needs answering has an underlying matter with numerous asymmetric layers. The attributes of the issue rarely resolve themselves into two distinct positions. Instead, they can be grouped in indefinite ways to form infinite perspectives. We must therefore strive to build on our ability to engage with the complexity of matters and engage with their layers without feeling compelled to fit them into silos of ‘for’ and ‘against’. Absolute positions rarely make for effective solutions. Rather, a solution resulting from the study of the nuances of a situation, wherein it engages with those nuances, is more likely to be efficacious than the absolute. Take the example of affirmative action in the form of reservation. While most people fall into the boxes of absolutely for or against, the full scope of solutions range from ‘no reservation whatsoever’ to ‘reservation excluding creamy layer’, ‘reservation excluding creamy layer and limited to one generation’, ‘reservation not based on caste but poverty metrics’ and ‘unconditional caste based reservation’ (to name a few). Each of these positions respond to specific sets of variables and parameters that pertain to the issue. The more we engage the nuances, the more variables and parameters we discover pertaining to the issue. Engagement with these nuances leads to a layered understanding of the broader issue, rather than a polarized opinion backed by limited facts, incidental to your position. As we go deeper, each layer breaks into further layers and so on.

This doesn’t mean we need to drive ourselves mad digging our way to oblivion on every issue we chance upon in the course of our lives. That is best left to doctoral candidates and academics. Rather, appreciating the kaleidoscopic nature of things serves as a strong counterweight against succumbing to over-simplistic thinking and superficial resolution of issues, decisions and questions. Furthermore, while we may not feel the necessity to dissect everything that comes in our path, we will posses the ability to do so when faced with taking a position on a matter of significance. While Step One teaches us to think like an average debater who is effective at defending either side of a binary, the defence will be superficial. Greatness in debating requires an appetite for nuance and logical thinking, and the ability to process objective facts analytically. With Step Two, we transcend the binary and learn to process situations as the sum of layers of nuance.

STEP THREE: Deploying The Debater Mind

Once we have learnt to deconstruct issues in our mind and process them at a nuanced level, with Step Three we will explore how to apply our enhanced understanding.

Our objective with every intellectual engagement in life, whether through reading, watching, listening, conversing, learning or decision-making, should be to build perspectives over opinions. Instead of lapping up or rejecting whatever we are presented with, we should deconstruct it into objective facts and logic, thereby discarding the bits that appeal to emotion or commonalities of cause and process it in a manner that engages the nuances of the matter and questions the pertaining assumptions or axioms that are taken for granted. Collating perspectives in this manner broadens our aggregate perspective on a matter and the resulting product is an amalgamation of facts and logical arguments representing various layers of the issue. These can then be processed as relative merits or demerits based on sub issues pertaining to the larger topic, instead of a blanket right or wrong applying to the topic itself.

An effective tool I discovered to peel these layers is to ask ‘How’ & ‘Why’. Everytime you’re faced with a principle or doctrine, ask Why. Then ask why again and again till you feel like you have sufficient depth of understanding of the rationale. Similarly, when a statement proposes an action that leads to a predicted outcome, ask How. The action-consequence bridge is composed of a series of micro-outcomes. Exploring these micro-outcomes helps us evaluate the prospects of the proposed consequences and understand the impact of the proposed move.

Let’s look at ‘Freedom of Expression’. “It must be absolute”. Why? Because any restriction to it will either be determined either by society or authorities and neither can be trusted with policing expression. Why? Society is often found to be wrong on crucial issues over a period of time, take how the majoritarian consensus was against the desegregation of schools in the era it was first initiated. Authorities on the other hand can act in a despotic or self interested manner and expression is the strongest check mechanism to it. Why? Because… Various answers to these whys can be found in the works of generations of philosophers and social commentators. The same applies in the converse direction. “It cannot be absolute”. Why? Unmitigated expression can be detrimental to society. Why? Certain forms of expression can lead to negative consequences in society thus creating victims, like in the cases of slander, hate speech etc. Analysing the issue in such manner will probably lead you towards considering the position “Freedom of speech must be fundamental but with reasonable restrictions” and subsequently what comprises “reasonable restrictions”. Thinking in this format not only builds depth in your understanding of issues but also prevents the sort of absolutist positions and beliefs that mire the discourse and politics surrounding issues like abortion, gun-ownership, religious rights and so on.

If you voted for Trump and strongly believed that giving tax breaks to big businesses or building a wall will improve things, maybe you should have deployed the How. “Well, big businesses will bring their money back home and the economy will thrive”. We ask how again. “Because this money will be invested back into the economy”. A majority in the electoral college bought this line of argumentation. However, thinking like a debaters requires you to critically analyse every layer of argumentation to make sure it holds up. What if like in the Bush era, the businesses do bring their profits back but continue to outsource jobs, meanwhile just parking their money in the US with the financial institutions? “Trickle down…” LOL.

Jokes apart, compelling arguments exist on all sides, even if not of comparable quality. Thinking and discoursing in this manner would bring greater depth to the proposals of the candidates and fostered a richer political process. This would lead to greater accountability and reduced vulnerability to emotionally exploitative proposals like ‘building a wall’. But MOST importantly, this brings people closer together from their extreme polarities and compels them to reason with the perspective of the other side. Trying to argue from the perspective of the working class that voted for Trump, even if only within their minds, would have prevented the Democrats from drifting out into void from where they condescended on the ‘simple folk’. The latter would have attempted to overcome fear based and emotive issues to demand a greater burden of proof from their politicians. Even if the outcome remained the same, the US would have gotten a better government and society out of the process.

LEVERAGE: The Debater Mind

I eventually realised, that thinking like a debater wasn’t merely useful in parliamentary debates, but even more so in everyday life. Our intellectual engagements are greatly augmented by this process. These engagements span from work to conflict resolution in the personal interactions. We shall discuss this further in my next essay…

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