The not-so-great debates

Robert Valentine Senior lecturer of advertising

Column by Robert Valentine, senior lecturer of advertising

Robert Valentine

I am personally offended when I hear about the pending “presidential debates.”

That’s probably because I am a debater.  I spent eight years of my life in high school and college on debate teams and more than 10 years after college as a debate coach. Calling political debates by that name upsets me as much as a soccer player would be upset by calling foosball “table soccer.”

Debate is an orderly discourse between two or more competing points of view, usually held in public for the purpose of testing which ideas are worthy of belief. Participants should remember that the point of the debate is not to defeat an opponent but to demonstrate the truth of a position taken on a matter of policy, value or fact.

Therefore, you can see instantly that lining up 10 or 12 people whose only interest is in being elected to high public office is not a good setting for an actual debate. In such horrific demonstrations as the primary “debates,” there is no setting forth of facts and applying of common values to a proposed policy. There is only time for vague assertions about what one will do if elected followed by a generous helping of character assassination from all the other people involved.

No civilized person would permit his or her spouse to subject the whole family to this kind of public abuse of mind and character. Happily, there is no law requiring spouses of any kind to be very civilized.  Besides, as so-called “reality TV” demonstrates, civility doesn’t seem to interest us for long.

In a real debate, speakers should, at all times, be as courteous as possible to one another. Their common enemy is the absence of a certain truth, not the opposing speakers.

A beautiful speaking voice or an ability with public address may prove advantageous, but the listeners are encouraged by the tradition of debate to pay strict attention to proof, logic and reason as tests of an argument.

Arguments ad hominem are to be avoided and, when they occur, to be deplored by both sides. Ad Hominem (“against the man”) is an argument that tries to disprove another argument by pointing out real or supposed flaws in the character of the speaker — not in the argument itself. Obviously, there is no logic to rejecting an idea because someone is thin or heavy, too young or too old, is poor or wealthy or is of this religion or that.

If the worst moral character on the planet argues that the sun will come up in the east, it will not rise in the west just because he or she is not a reputable person. Facts are facts and reasoned arguments are valid regardless of who speaks them.

As you see, the current practice of televising presidential candidates for a series of ad hominem remarks is very far from the purpose of debate and is, quite clearly, a commercial device to raise money for networks at the expense of the political process. It is a boon for pseudo-journalists who will dissect the potential meanings of every syllable or non-verbal nuance. The jobs of many “commentators” and “comedians” are at great risk after the election. What will they speak about?

The fact that candidates are willing to collaborate in this crude and humiliating entertainment does not disprove its uselessness so much as it condemns the candidates for their participation in a debasement of both politics and rhetoric.

It condemns us, too. If we are willing to pretend that this crude, immature character assassination meets our standard for reasoned discourse, then we will get what we deserve. Listen, watch, think and then let candidates, parties and networks know what you think. It may be that we need better choices in all three categories.

At least the debates will answer that question, if they answer no others.