The180·The 180

What if leaders' debates were really debates?

Your average political debate includes a lot of crosstalk, and a lot of talking points, but not a lot of genuine discussion and persuasion. We ask philosopher Mark Kingwell to help us imagine what might happen if Canada's party leaders actually debated.
Would political debates be better if they were more like proverbial "naked wrestling"? (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)
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If you caught the most recent leaders' debate, you heard leaders talking over each other, interrupting each other, and setting out their party platforms with carefully crafted talking points. What you didn't hear was a rational discussion of policy, an exchange of ideas, or one leader persuading another to look at things differently. So was it really a debate? 

Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, says "real" debates require participants to come to the stage with an agreed upon set of facts and goals, and with open minds - so open, they're willing to change them. He says if you go back far enough in the tradition of debate, you arrive at the idea that a debate should be like naked wrestling.

"There's an old Greek maxim that you have to come naked to wrestle, and the idea is that to be engaged in a kind of agonistic exchange with a worthy opponent means to make yourself vulnerable, in the pursuit of something that you both value." 

There's an old Greek maxim that you have to come naked to wrestle, and the idea is that to be engaged in a kind of agonistic exchange with a worthy opponent means to make yourself vulnerable.- Mark Kingwell , philosopher

If that happened, he says, voters would really get to see how well each leader is able to think, and persuade, and tell the truth. But Kingwell says even though he hears Canadians yearn for a "real" debate, he's not so sure they actually want it. Real debate, after all, requires not just open minds of its participants, but its spectators too.

"Whatever the state of political debate and current political discourse, can one citizen, every citizen, go into an election prepared to change her or his mind?"

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