Our sorry state of debate
The bedrock of a flourishing democracy is the informed consent of the governed.
If Sy Sym’s slogan that “an educated consumer is our best customer” is true for business, then “an educated civilian is our best citizen” is true for politics.
If the Talmud famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven” —machloket l’shem shamayim — “will make a lasting contribution,” it also warns that “Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” Our sages understood that debate for the right reasons enhances the community. Debate for the wrong reasons diminishes us.
That is why I so lament the sorry state of debate in our nation. It seems like things have gone from bad to worse. I’ve watched every debate, and my sinking feeling at the beginning of each televised travesty generally ends in depression. Millions of Americans are tuning in hungry for elevated conversation, only to walk away sated by a meal of junk food.
As Fergus Bordewich writes in “America’s Great Debate,” his book on the lofty abolition arguments of the mid-19th century, “The pool-tested, spin-doctored, shoddily argued and grammatically challenged ‘messaging’ that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison.” And that was before the spectacle that passes for debate this election cycle.
The media is complicit in the farce. Candidates are given 90 seconds to make their case. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates each man spoke for 90 minutes! The moderators often pose inane questions that goad the debaters to attack each other rather than speak affirmatively about their platforms. When the candidates regurgitate their talking points rather than answering their questions, the response is mostly: “moving on….”
At their first debate, more than 10,000 people stood listening to Lincoln and Douglas for the entire three hours — there were no seats or bleachers. Similar crowds showed up for the next six debates, which were of such national interest that they were “broadcast” live by stenographers, who raced from the debates at set intervals with transcripts made in shorthand, which were then written out and conveyed by telegraph. Douglas began by acknowledging how significant debate was for addressing “the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind.” Abraham Lincoln opened his reply in feisty style: “When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented it provokes him, but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it’s more apt to amuse him.” Then, though, he got down to the serious business of educating the electorate about the ethical ills of perpetuating slavery.
Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook posts helped spark the Tahrir Square uprising that toppled a president but ultimately failed to bring democracy to Egypt, recently acknowledged that the Arab spring was aborted when true debate failed to materialize. Instead, he laments, social media “only amplified [the polarization] by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech.” He concludes that “Today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations…. It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”
Contrast that with the Talmud’s description of Beit Hillel, who is said to prevail in its ongoing debates with Beit Shammai “because the followers of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and always mentioned the words of the other school with great respect and humility before their own.”
Likewise, as Bordewich avers on abolition: “Something else intrigued me, too, the more I read the records of the debate itself: never did American politicians speak to the nation more honestly, more persuasively, more provocatively and more passionately, in language that was often so splendid it nearly reached the level of poetry … men who believed in slavery said so, as did those who hated it, no matter how much odium their words attracted. By listening in on the debate, we can learn … not only about the profound ways in which slavery warped our political system, and about the creative craft of compromise, but also about how to talk politics to each other so that we actually listen.”
The lost art of debate is not lost entirely. An impressive organization called Intelligence Squared, begun in England, now hosts high-level debates on national issues in New York. Its mission statement proclaims: “From Socrates to the First Amendment, progressive democracy has relied upon civility, respect and understanding in public discourse. Debate is the cornerstone of American progress, the vehicle for new ideas and the platform for the synthesis of two opposing points of view.”
How interesting that the centrality of debate was expressed in very similar terms by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, when he wrote of Hillel and Shammai that “both views will have permanent value because … [they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as … advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments on this teaching: “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without machloket…the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”
As a high school student, my experience on a nationally ranked debate team was profoundly enlightening. As a rabbinical school student, I learned to cherish the passion for debate that courses through our tradition, and years later it prompted me to write a book on the subject. As a student of American history, I know that worthy debate does not weaken but instead strengthens us.
We may need campaign finance reform, banking reform, immigration reform — but how about starting with presidential debate reform? The kind of reform that goes beyond sound bites and sniping to affirmation, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of “the dignity of difference.” Who knows — in the process we may not only gain a greater appreciation our marvelous diversity, but also the realization that what unites us is greater than what divides us.
Barry L. Schwartz, the director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and the rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, is the author, most recently, of “Judaism’s Great Debates.”