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. They’re usually white men who invite people on their Twitch stream to ‘debate’ them, and it seems like the goal is to  ‘own’ the guest and berate them into admitting they’re wrong because they’ve so thoroughly explained to them why they’re wrong.

Or so that’s what we’re supposed to believe because that isn’t what actually happens.

What’s really occurring is that the person “inviting” the other person onto their stream has already made their initial point: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I refuse to acknowledge your ideas as correct or useful until you test them against my obvious superior intelligence.” Since these invitations usually start as an aggressive response to something considered “wrong,” the atmosphere these so-called ‘debates’ take place in is generally pretty negative and just as aggressive.

For the audience, they generally have their minds made up before the ‘debate’ has even begun: it’s rare that the fans of a participant side with the other person, so they’re probably going to view these debates as “my guy won” moments. Almost no one will actually have their views challenged, and many of the people observing will leave more entrenched in their beliefs than when they began.

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

Plus, as a teacher who sometimes teaches debate and used to participate in debate (and political) clubs as a student? They’re an affront to the actual skills of debate because “scream and interrupt as much as humanly possible” are incredibly ineffective, inappropriate, and just downright rude. And because some of these streamers are watched by my students? They come away thinking that’s how you debate. (For me, the only benefit to the VODs these streamers leave behind is that I can use them as examples of “what not to do” and teach students how to critically analyse an argument or recognise when there isn’t an argument at all.)

Oh, and that they’re just entertainment. (Maybe. For someone. Not for me.) And it’s entertainment that we need less of (especially considering who the ‘Debate Me’ Bros are and how little educated they are on topics of demographics they’re not a part of).

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

I’ve been thinking about this since I watched Sana Saeed’s video about The Dick Cavett Show and how it impacted late night television (and beyond). She discusses all the techniques that he used to both differentiate his show from other late night shows and make it a show that people wanted to be on because of the experience. And while I know she’s discussing late night television? I feel like it’s pretty applicable to the streams that many people watch.

And I think, honestly, we need to learn to have genuine and authentic conversations, and they need to be largely planned but unscripted. They need to be inclusive of a range of people and perspectives, and they need to really 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 them over time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what engages me into the different podcasts and YouTube/Twitch streams that I follow, and it finally clicked for me: They’re largely media that incorporates conversation. While I enjoy long-form video essays (on more than one occasion) and informational podcasts, the ones I listen to the most encourage questioning what you’re listening to and integrating new knowledge.

And they’re generally more inclusive of people whose voices need to be heard and are more respectful of the guests they bring on (and many of them even accept guests who ask to be on to discuss a certain topic). They’re people who generally know how to question their guests to elicit conversation.

This really clicked for me 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: Slavery Never Ended. The format of this episode includes three separate interviews: first with Azzurra Crispino of PAPS and IWOC, second with Cole Dorsey of the Oakland IWOC, and a strike organiser within the prison known only as “D.”

Each person is discussing the issue 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. And certain questions in both Azzurra’s and Cole’s interviews were redirected to the next person because they knew more about it or had experience with it. These techniques, whether they realised it or not, lead to the audience questioning who they get their information from and integrating knowledge that they should get from people closely related to the subject (but that not all people have equal experience and so they should redirect to someone else who does have it).

But every single person interviewed felt open and genuine, while Roqaya and Kumars seem to have an outline of questions they want to ask (but not a script that they’re following). Each question led to the next topic or elaborated further on something to get a better understanding of what was happening. Sometimes the questions seemed pleasantly surprising to the guests; at one point, Azzurra mentioned that she wished more people asked a question about who else was involved in the work around the prison strike.

And it’s not limited to this episode. Almost all of their episodes work like this. It’s fantastic.

Since recognising this, I’ve been noticing this about some of the other things I enjoy watching or listening to. In every normal episode of Citations Needed, Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi interview someone related to the topic who comes across as genuine and honest; they always seem to have experiences and knowledge that are rarely seen or discussed elsewhere, and the interviews never feel scripted. They feel like discussions the participants enjoyed having (and this is especially true of the episode The Pro-Gentrification Aspirationalism of HGTV’s House-Flipping Shows, where Nima even admits that he likes watching these shows, even though he knows what their messaging is).

And then there’s Emerican Johnson/NonCompete’s Radical Perspectives Panel and interviews by Rishwajeet Singh/leftclicktv. Both of them share a lot of the qualities that I mentioned above. They seek out people who are involved in the discussion they’re having, they engage with meaningful questions, and they all encourage everyone asking questions. As hosts, both EJ and Rishwajeet show they’re engaged in the conversation; they both know how to guide the conversation but not take it over. (For examples, I’d check EJ’s recent interview with Ty Underwood and John Dorsey from comradery.co and Rishwajeet’s recent video about Belarus with Quinsberry.)

The skills all of (but not limited to) these people are what I wish more ‘left’ media would incorporate. In every example, the hosts have figured out how to guide conversations, when to clarify, and how to explore topics in really natural ways; the people being interviewed or coming onto stream as guests are related to the topics they’re discussing, referring to other people’s experience or expertise when they know they need to. Many of them even outright say when they don’t know enough about something, and being able to admit that is also helpful.

It shows 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 and panels for the future.

Debates don’t do this, and they weren’t designed to (even when done ‘properly’ and not in the ‘Debate Me’ Bros aggressive style). But panels and discussions have this opportunity, and I think we need more of them.

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