Persuasion and the limits of debate

There’s a Labour leadership election coming up in the UK – you might have noticed. Whoever wins, and the candidates are actually quite diverse, one thing won’t change: at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader will not agree with the Conservative leader or vice versa. At no point will you see David Cameron say to Jeremy Corbyn: “That’s an excellent point. You’re right about that. I’m going to sit down now.”

But why not? If two people are debating an issue, surely there is a fact of the matter and that it is possible for one side or the other to be close to the truth? But at PMQs or any other kind of debate, you rarely if at all see one person convince the other – although they might perhaps convince someone who’s listening.
There’s a dialogue by Plato (stay with me now) called Gorgias, in which Socrates puts forward his beliefs about the why one should try to live the good life, but he comes up against a formidable opponent in Callicles, who holds that might is right: that getting whatever is you want by whatever means is the right thing to do – so long as you can get away with it. Socrates is shocked, as it’s his belief that suffering injustice is better than doing it: better to be tortured than to be the torturer.

Sanzio 01 Socrates.jpg
Sanzio 01 Socrates” by Raphael[1]. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
No matter how many arguments Socrates puts forward, Callicles is not convinced. In fact he becomes so frustrated by the whole process, he slips into a teenager’s “whatever you say” mode in answer to Socrates points, until he finally asks Socrates to play his own role in the debate. Bizarrely, Socrates proceeds to argue with himself – and still cannot reach an agreement.
This has happened to me over the last few days. You see I’ve started talking to myself in the mirror… no, that’s a post for a different day. I mean that I’ve debated with other people the issue of whether it is right to publish, on social media or in the newspapers, the shocking picture of the drowned Syrian boy. (You can see some of my views on this here.) I felt I made some really excellent points in response to theirs, but in the end neither convinced the other.
I can convince people sometimes: the other week I persuaded someone to take a different route by car to a place they were travelling to on the Costa Brava. In this case though, I suppose the fact of the matter was clearer: I explained that even though the other route was shorter, it would take longer. This was the key to convincing them.
What about posting photos of dead children? It’s an ethical and moral issue and so the fact of the matter may not exist – but I think it does.
Perhaps my arguments just weren’t good enough. Evidently they were not. Maybe the format isn’t the right one (a few of these debates were on Twitter). Maybe. But just maybe we’re so emotionally invested in our positions (and I stress that I include myself here) that this prevents us from backing down. I felt that the other people skipped important points I made and focused on side issues, or misunderstood (sometimes wilfully) what I was trying to say. Doubtless they feel the same way.

But this is important: it really is about life and death. Isn’t this exactly what we need to find common ground on? Why can’t we? I honestly don’t know.

Aporia: an impasse, puzzlement. Where a debate with Socrates usually ends up.



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