Stop Debating, Start Discussing; or Why Debates Don’t Work and What To Do About It

From the perspective of a super-online person and a teacher who engages with super-online kids, it seems like everyone has run into what are called the ‘Debate Me’ Bros, a hyper-common phenomenon that seems intent to take over ‘left’ movements. They’re usually white men who invite people on their Twitch streams to ‘debate’ them, and it seems like the goal is to ‘own’ the guest until they’ve finally been badgered into admitting they’re wrong and decide to completely change their previously held position because the host has so thoroughly explained to them why their beliefs are harmful.

Or so that’s what a lot of proponents of this tactic tell us, even though that isn’t actually what happens.

What’s really occurring is that the person “inviting” the other person onto their stream has already made their initial point before the debate has even begun. Through a series of tweets or otherwise public messages, they’ve already made their message clear: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I refuse to acknowledge your ideas as correct or even useful until you test them against my obviously superior intelligence.” Since these invitations usually start as an aggressive response to something considered “wrong,” the atmosphere in which these so-called ‘debates’ take place is generally pretty negative and hostile to any form of growth.

For the audience, they generally have their minds made up before the ‘debate’ has even begun.  They’ve seen the tweet storms between the participants, usually siding with their favourite challenger. It’s rare that the fans of one person side with the other, which means a lot of people are probably going to view these debates as “my guy won” moments. Almost no one will actually have their views challenged at any point in the debate because it’s incredibly rare that anyone (least of all the host) comes prepared with any research, and many of the people observing will generally leave more entrenched in their beliefs than when they began.

These debates are a mess, and I really don’t see any positives in them.

As a teacher who sometimes teaches debate and used to participate in debate (and political) clubs as a student, I see them as being an affront to the actual skills of debate because the tactics of screaming and interrupting as much as humanly possible are incredibly ineffective, inappropriate, and just downright rude. And because some of these streamers are popular, my students sometimes watch them.  Unfortunately for me, this means that many kids leave those debates and enter my classes thinking that’s how you actually debate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my students, usually young white boys, that this style of debate really only achieves one thing: making the people you’re surrounded by hate you.

For me, the only benefit of these ‘Debate Me’ Bro streamers is that they leave behind VODs that I can sometimes use as examples of “what not to do.” They help me teach students how to critically analyse an argument or how to recognise when there isn’t an argument at all.

They also help to teach that these debates are purely entertainment. (I mean, I guess they are. They might be entertaining for someone who isn’t me.) And this is entertainment that we need less of, especially considering the ‘Debate Me’ Bros are from the most over-represented demographic and constantly show how little education they care to have about people from any other demographic.

So, if we shouldn’t be ‘debating’, what should we be doing?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I watched Sana Saeed’s video about The Dick Cavett Show and how it impacted late night television (and beyond). In it, she discusses all the techniques that he used to both differentiate his show from the other late night shows that were airing at the time and make it a show that people wanted to be on because of the experience. For his show, Dick Cavett made sure that he designed his set to look more like a space conducive to conversation, he worked to highlight different social groups and social issues (though he still had his own issues especially related to race), and he created an environment where people didn’t want to just promote their newest project. And while I know Sana’s discussing late night television and how that area could improve, I feel like it’s pretty applicable to the streams that many people watch today.

Of all the tactics that she mentions, I feel that the one we most need to learn is how to have genuine and authentic conversations. These types of discussions need to be largely planned but unscripted. They need to be inclusive of a range of people and perspectives, and they really need to prompt us to ask questions and encourage us to be curious. More than ever, we need discussions that ask us to interrogate our own ideas and help us improve upon them or, at the very least, integrate more information to help us develop those ideas over time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about different podcasts and YouTube and Twitch streams that I follow regularly and what they do to engage me, and it finally clicked: They’re largely forms of media that incorporate conversation that lead people to investigate and, for the most part, show how we can respectfully inquire about topics we have little experience with or knowledge about. While I enjoy long-form video essays (on more than one occasion) and strictly informational podcasts, I still find myself listening to podcasts and streams that most encourage questioning what you’re listening to and integrating new knowledge.

The best ones are those that are generally more inclusive of people whose voices need to be heard and are more respectful of the guests they bring on. Many of them even accept guests who ask to be on to discuss certain topics, giving them support when they need it. They’re led by people who generally know how to question their guests to elicit conversation and ensure their audience leaves with something to think about.

I started recognising this when I was listening to older episodes of Delete Your Account, a podcast hosted by Roqaya Chamseddine and Kumars Salehi that discusses stories from the news and media. Specifically, I’d been listening to one of their older episodes from 2016 called Slavery Never Ended. What struck me was the format of this particular episode. It weaves together three separate interviews with Azzurra Crispino of PAPS and IWOC, Cole Dorsey of the Oakland IWOC, and a strike organiser within the prison known only as “D.” Each person is discussing the prison strike from their own perspective. Azzurra’s discussing it from the perspective of a prison abolitionist, Cole is discussing it from the perspective of a former prisoner who now organises with IWW and IWOC to support prisoners, and “D” is discussing it from the perspective of an (at the time) incarcerated person.

During the interviews, when Roqaya or Kumars asked certain questions that they felt they couldn’t speak to, each of the interviewees would redirect them to ask the person they felt was more qualified to respond. Whether they realised it or not, this technique helped highlight two things that we need to be able to do in order to have these genuine and open conversations. First, it showed that we can avoid talking over those who have more expertise than we do and give them a voice. Second, it shows that we should always be asking who we’re getting information from and why we’re making that decision to get information from them.

This interview style also helped show that, while Roqaya and Kumars came mostly prepared with sets of questions they wanted to ask each person, they didn’t need to fully script themselves and could guide a conversation to help their audience learn more about the prison strike that was taking place. What made it even better is that, at one point, the pair threw out a question to Azzurra that surprised her. They asked who else was involved in the work around the prison strike, and Azzurra immediately opened with stating she wished more people would ask her questions like that.

And this isn’t limited to just this episode. Almost all of their episodes work like this. It’s fantastic.

Since recognising this, I’ve been noticing these qualities in some of the other things I enjoy watching or listening to. For example, in every normal episode of Citations Needed, Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi interview someone related to the topic who comes across as genuinely happy to be on the show; the guests they have on always seem to have experiences and knowledge that are rarely seen or discussed elsewhere, and the interviews never feel scripted. They feel like discussions that all participants enjoyed having, and this can be heard throughout all of the episodes.

Similarly in The Radical AI Podcast, hosts Dylan Doyle-Burke and Jessie Smith utilise a structure that encourages a frank conversation. They start each episode with a central question and bring on a different guest to discuss and explore the topic. Every episode starts with the same disclaimer: they may not always endorse or agree with the views of their guests, but they believe it’s important to hear them in order to better inform our beliefs and opinions. But what I really love about this podcast is that they bring on people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines to discuss the implications of technology, including many who are rarely ever heard from.

And then there are discussions that are hosted by people like Javi of A Leftist Loudmouth (Cuñado de izquierdas) and interviews by Rishwajeet Singh of leftclicktv. Both of them share a lot of the qualities that I mentioned above. They seek out people who are involved and interested in the discussions they’re having, they engage their guests with meaningful questions, they give space for uncertainty, and they both encourage everyone to ask questions. As hosts, Javi and Rishwajeet show they’re engaged in the conversation; they all know how to guide the conversation but not take it over, and they’re often the first people willing to admit when they’re missing knowledge. (For some examples of their work, I’d recommend checking out Javi’s discussion with Mel & Mel and Rishwajeet’s video about Belarus with Quinsberry.)

The skills of all (but not limited to) these people are what I wish more ‘left’ media, and media in general, would incorporate. Having more examples of people using these tactics would provide more people with the opportunity to learn them, which would benefit our society so much. Having spaces that show and teach people how to guide conversations, ask for clarification, and explore topics in really natural ways would help create really healthy environments for learning and organising.

And being able to see people being consulted who are directly impacted by the issues being discussed would be far better than having two white ‘Debate Me’ Bros taking space, which I think is quite obvious. It would also provide a lot of space for people to openly say when they don’t know enough about something, and being able to admit that is really helpful.

It would show that we don’t have to know everything. It encourages curiosity in the audience to explore those topics, and it even sets up possible discussions for the future and helps people figure out where they can fit in and what they can do.

Debates don’t do this, and they were never designed to (even when they’re done ‘properly’ and not in the aggressive ‘Debate Me’ Bro style). But panels and discussions have this opportunity, and I think we need to take advantage of that.

(And if you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to send them to me at @whatanerd on Twitter.)

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to make points clearer and to clean up previously confusing sentences. There were a lot of parts that I wasn’t happy with, and I wanted to make this a lot stronger than it had been.