“It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”
— Thomas Paine
A public debate implies a failure of two parties to reach mutual agreement on matters of general importance. Given the time, resources, and values at stake, one would hope that the debaters come prepared, which should mean that, first and foremost, the parties try to resolve their disagreement beforehand. So it should perhaps be stated at the outset of any debate whether or not the debaters engaged in such discourse, in order to help the listeners assess whether the debaters have an authentic concern for the truth, or whether they are only interested in furthering an agenda driven by a dogma.
In this article I propose a formal method of discourse. It is of course not necessary to be formal – people naturally know how to engage with one another – but this format may be useful in some circumstances, such as when the discourse is recorded, when it is prelude to a formal debate, or any other time it is important to be systematic.
The primary purpose of discourse is to resolve differences of opinion through sincere and rational discussion; it is not for entertainment value or for “winning”. The general goal is to find mutual agreement, and where this is not possible, to at least throw the disagreement into sharp relief, in which case all parties should strive to accurately represent the difference.
Before the event begins, the initiating party should state what purpose will be accomplished (e.g., to find out why another party thinks such and such and to convince him otherwise); those who assent to the purpose can participate, and optionally may submit their own purposes, if they relate in some meaningful way to the original purpose. The choice of moderator, purposes and ordering of them, and maximum duration, must be settled (ideally in writing) before the event begins. Unless otherwise specified, the person who originally proposed purpose is the “owner” of it.
Discourse goes through five phases: Introduction, Framing, Engagement, Recapitulation, and Conclusion. These are governed by the moderator, who may also have purposes. It is the moderator’s responsibility to make sure the participants follow the rules, and it is the responsibility of the participant to adhere to the governance of the moderator. Subject to moderator discretion, a rogue participant should be ejected. Participants may interrupt to suggest that the moderator do something differently, but must acquiesce to the moderator’s final judgment. The moderator engages at the end of every phase, in order to summarize or clarify issues, and to introduce the next phase.
Substantive phases are divided into sections, with one section per purpose. The length of each section is to be determined by the moderator, and either agreed to prior to discourse, or to be left to the judgment of the moderator during discourse. Ideally, the length of the sections are somewhat flexible, but it is always the moderator’s responsibility to make sure the discussion stays on topic and does not exceed necessary time limitations.
- Introduction. The moderator may make any statements he deems appropriate.
- Framing. Each party states his purposes in turn, adding whatever background information he deems relevant. The stated purpose may differ in wording but should not differ in spirit to what was arranged beforehand. If all parties do not agree with the purposes as stated then the discussion may need to be aborted.
- Engagement. Each purpose is engaged in turn. The substantive discourse occurs mainly in this phase, and follows the “Rules of Engagement” given below.
- Recapitulation. Each party may convey to what extent they believe their original purposes were fulfilled, optionally giving the other parties a brief and final chance to resolve any remaining inconsistency. Ideally the parties will either all agree, or will all agree with how the other party states the difference of opinion.
- Conclusion. The moderator may summarize or make any statements he deems appropriate.
- Rationality & Sincerity. Parties should be rational and sincere. Politeness is encouraged only to the extent that it does not infringe upon these deeper values. Those who rigidly insist on “respect” or “politeness” naturally create the suspicion of insincerity: that what they really want is to get away with advocating ideas that deserve to be treated with disrespect. To be “civil” is not to be meek and mild, it is to be rational and just; it is to advance ideas that truly further civilization, and to fight ideas that undermine it.
- Session steps. Each engagement session is in the following order: 1) The owner of the purpose may engage in any manner he wishes, so long as he does not contradict the broader rules or limits. He may ask questions, answer questions, interrupt the other party, etc. Since only he can determine whether his purpose was actually fulfilled, he is in charge of his section. 2) When the owner has finished, any party the owner engaged can optionally make brief final remarks, such as to clarify any possible misunderstandings. 3) Any party can submit additional purposes to be discussed in later engagement sessions, if the moderator agrees he will work these in at the appropriate time.
- Misrepresentation interruption. Anyone who believes he is being misrepresented may briefly interrupt at any time in order to object to how their position is being factually represented (but not in order to object to how it is being evaluated). If the same objection is made repeatedly, the moderator may either invite the allegedly misrepresenting party to modify his remarks, or may specify to the objector that no more objections on this point should be made.
- Confusion interruption. When a party is not able to understand what is being said and it is necessary to the purpose of the discussion that they do understand, then they should judiciously wait a to see if the confusion might be resolved by what will be said next, and if it is not, interrupt.
- Disagreement interruption. When agreement with a given line of reasoning is being sought, then the listening party should interrupt at the point where he encounters a premise he does not agree with, to seek clarification. In this case it is rude to not interrupt, since subsequent steps in the argument will be a waste of time. Interruption should be judicious, as it may be the case that the speaker had not finished clarifying the particular step yet.
- Relevance interruption. The moderator should monitor the discussion for relevance to the purpose being discussed and judiciously interrupt when parties go off course or ramble.
- Negligent moderator interruption. Participants may briefly interrupt to invite the moderator to follow the rules, but the moderator will make the final judgment and may ask an unruly participant to stop interrupting.
- Moderator discretion & humility. Regardless of any rules, the moderator’s dictates must be heeded; the moderator himself can be judged outside of the discussion. I.e., the moderator “owns” the discussion. That said, the moderator should be careful to not let this power go to his head – he should be loath to exercise it, for it is worse to shut down a legitimate point than to spend some time on an illegitimate point.
- Rules are not a dogma. These rules are a guide only; participating parties should try to avoid quibbling over whether someone did or didn’t follow them, instead staying focused on the purposes at hand. In particular, they should not quibble over whether someone is or is not being dogmatic about the rules. The rules exist for the sake of furthering discourse, not to be a subject of discourse.