Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Ethics of Debate

In August of 2008, in Portland, Oregon, a women’s team lost a softball game and gained the admiration of the entire country. When an opposing player hit a home run but collapsed with a knee injury on first base, members of the Central Washington University team carried her around the bases so that she could have the home run she’d earned by hitting the ball out of the park.

The CWU team lost their shot at the season playoffs, but there were no regrets. “We just wanted to help her,” said one of the players who did.

Thus Sara Tucholsky, a graduating senior, was able to experience the first and only home run of her entire softball career. But that’s not what made the story so remarkable. The amazing thing was that young American players would risk losing—because all too commonly, Americans believe in winning at any cost.

America is an adversarial nation. In sports, winning teams are celebrated like conquering armies who saved the nation. In courts, attorneys are judged by their win-loss record—not by how much of the truth of a situation they are able to bring to light. In politics after an election, the losing party is focused on regaining power, not on solving real problems for real people. (Readers may decide for themselves if that hasn’t been much more true in recent years of one party than the other.)

In America, “winning” is all about trouncing opponents—not about doing the right thing.

And so it is with competitive speech and debate. The purpose of the exercise is to win. And debaters who hone the skills necessary—such as persuasion, refutation, and judicious use of facts and statistics—may go on to become attorneys or politicians, writers or news commentators. By the time they do, the heady feeling of winning may well have become an end in itself.

This is where ethics come in. There’s a world of difference between an effective argument and an ethical one—between winning an argument and furthering truth and understanding.

To develop an effective argument, speakers and writers have to consider a number of factors, including audience, thesis, and purpose.

Audience is the group of people for whom a message is intended. An effective message is one to which people (i.e., members of the audience) listen and respond; an ethical one is targeted to an appropriate audience and delivers the same, straightforward message to everyone.

A thesis is a simple statement of the main idea. An effective thesis is one that people believe; an ethical one is based on a genuine preponderance of evidence.

The purpose of an argument is its intended impact on the audience. An effective argument moves people emotionally and inspires them to act; an ethical one enlightens and inspires the audience to act in positive ways.

Americans are busy people, working more hours per week than citizens of any other developed nation. That makes it understandable—if not necessarily right—that typical Americans don’t take the time to follow some issues closely. Consequently, they tend to be inordinately influenced by snippets of speeches they hear on the car radio or thirty-second ads on TV. Sadly if understandably, most Americans often don’t take much time to think.

That’s a fact. What it means is that the American audience tends to be vulnerable to public arguments that may have simple or erroneous theses or purposes that benefit only the wealthy and elite—those who can afford to buy the ads.

Perhaps Americans ought to pay closer attention to politics and public arguments. On the other hand, perhaps a greater burden of ethical responsibility belongs to those who have mastered the art of winning their hearts and minds.

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