by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
This piece calls into question the validity of a longstanding, but now, hardly venerable practice. Linguistically, the origin of the word “debate” in English comes from the Romanic or Latin “De-Battle” and later the Old French “debatre.” The linguistic origin is telling. Historically, debate began as an alternative or panacea for war (de-battle), although the technique clearly backfired at times as evidenced in the saying: “War begins in words.”
Debate has been used for centuries as an effective means of persuasion in the public meeting and especially in the legislative assembly. Debating societies in modern universities, while now on the wane, once produced serviceable skills: critical thinking, eloquent speakers with very ready and able presentations and/or defence of ideas, usually on controversial social, ethical, political or religious issues of the day.
In modern media journalism, the spirit of debate still animates the panel discussion, the open forum, the “one-on-one” confrontation, the talk show and exchanges of opinion. Political debate featuring presidential, prime ministerial or other party hopefuls has been instrumental (or not) in launching, maintaining or destroying careers and in serving partisan interests. The spirit of debate lives on, with much more decisive results, in legal arguments presented in the courts of law. It continues to flourish in public and private discourse of many shades and produces everything from common letters to the Editor to the noteworthy exchanges between intellectuals, artists, activists or others.
Certain features of debate are, of course, worth preserving. We need to understand both sides of any issue — and in today’s global harrowing economic, social and political climate — all sides of the multi-facetted, redoubtable complex challenges that modern governments, institutions and individuals are called upon to face. Moreover, debate helps to protect against the tyranny of monolithic, one-way thinking and simplistic and/or dangerous ideas. Besides, we all enjoy that slight elevation of the pulse brought on by “le choc des idées” (“the shock of ideas”): a good but fair fight in verbal form. A well-informed, articulate speaker is a delight to hear, except, of course, if the eloquence serves a dangerous or repugnant idea, project or purpose.
But today we are all witness to a flagrant abuse of this once honourable medium, especially in the political process. At times we observe members of parliament, regressing to adolescence, hurling insults and invective at members on the other side of the House or, occasionally, MP’s threatening one another with bodily harm or actually engaging in altercation.
In the face of such antics, the “tolerance effect” begins to set in. The public becomes jaded. Sadder still, these practices come to be the accepted “norm” for elected officials, and this volatile venting of the spleen is taken for the everyday dynamic of the political process. All the while, the reputation of politicians sinks further into the mud, and a much disaffected public has become understandably alienated from such shambles. With such leaders as “role-models,” small wonder that the public no longer believes in the integrity of the political process.
The above are, of course, extreme examples of informed dispute. But nonetheless, the primary purpose of debate, that of finding the most beneficial and expedient measure for the public good, or the most effective and workable solution to any problem — in short, of finding the truth in any matter — has for too long now been seriously undermined by unskilled practitioners.
This adversarial system does not serve the best interests of good government. The public good is no longer served when party loyalties breed systematic partisan opposition regardless of the political correctness (in the best sense of the word) of the other viewpoint being put forward. I wonder how the truth of any matter — which requires careful, sober, thoughtful consideration — can become known in the face of dire accusations, constant wrangling, incessant interruptions, persistent opposition, verbal attacks and scandal-mongering? Where else but in the Canadian House of Commons is such discourse considered legitimate?
And where are those listening skills so useful in the helping professions? Need they become irrelevant to the art of government? If the beginning and end of consultation, as the native peoples discovered ages ago, reside in the sacred art of listening, then what we have today in the political process is closer to comedy than it is to consultation.
What I am suggesting requires a radical reformation of the political process in which legislators really to listen to one another and to consult their consciences instead of following the robotics of systemic opposition—regardless. We have to learn news ways of speaking, listening, agreeing and deciding; that is, of governing. That way, I believe, is the path of consultation. Dysfunctional debate has long outworn its usefulness.