Logical Debate: The Lost Discipline

When Lincoln and Douglas engaged in their famous debates during the Senatorial election of 1858, they followed a format that was fairly common for debaters of that generation.  First one debater would speak for an agreed period of time.  Then the second debater would engage in a period of cross-examination before presenting his own constructive argument, after which the first debater would then engage in his own line of cross-examination.

Modern debating competitions that make use of the Lincoln-Douglas format will expect debaters to adhere to a much tighter schedule–often along the following lines:

  • Affirmative Constructive–6 minutes
  • Cross-Examination–3 minutes
  • Negative Constructive–7 minutes
  • Cross-Examination–3 minutes
  • First Affirmative Rebuttal–4 minutes
  • Negative Rebuttal–6 minutes
  • Second Affirmative Rebuttal–3 minutes

Note the attempt at fairness, allotting each debater a measure of time calculated to account for the advantage of going first rather than second.  In the rebuttal sessions, no new arguments are allowed; however, new analyses of previous arguments are permitted.

The purpose of formal debating competitions is to train debaters to use the discipline of logical reasoning as opposed to irrational appeals to passion or prejudice.  Anyone who has watched a modern, televised American presidential debate knows that we have not only abandoned the Lincoln-Douglas format, we have apparently lost any interest in the discipline of logical reasoning.

When I was a child, my father brought home a deck of playing cards labeled “Propaganda.”  These were essentially flashcards designed to teach the dangers of various logical fallacies.  Each card would present an example of a logical fallacy–for example “Use New Micrograin Toothpaste!  It contains ingredient Scourex 250-Z.”  (I’m making this up, but you get the idea.)  The player drawing the card would be required to name the logical fallacy–in this case, the fallacy might be called “alphabet soup” or “appeal to a pseudo-scientific label.”  I can’t recall whether there was a game board or not.  I just recall the importance my father gave to my learning all the fallacies included in the deck.

In a typical presidential debate, one can expect to hear quite a number of fallacies, with little attempt at systematic analysis of these fallacies after each debate, even by media pundits and fact-checkers.  Instead, these analysts typically discuss the debate in terms of polls:  the percentage of Americans who believe each candidate won or lost the debate.  The ad hominem fallacy–resorting to name-calling or other personal attack to evade answering the real question–is especially common.  Yet no one seems to discuss the utter irrationality of that tactic.  Thus, Lloyd Bentsen’s famous line–“Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy”–when speaking of his opponent, Dan Quayle, was rarely discussed as an ad hominem remark.  Instead, it was viewed as an effective “zinger” or a powerful turning point in the debate.  The fact that I happened to agree with Lloyd Bentsen’s remark was a part of me I had learned it was best to squelch, and so it bothered me when nobody else had a problem with unfairness or irrationality, so long as the tactic happened to be effective against the opposing team; i. e., the “enemy.”

To become a Spirited Reasoner may mean standing alone or as part of a very small crowd.  But it is my contention that our democracy is now in danger because we have permitted that crowd to become so small.  Insistence on fairness and reason should not be reduced to agreeing with the “zingers” expressed by the pundits on the cable-TV channel that corresponds with our political stripe.  We need to insist on fairness and reason for all participants.

Yes, I know.   We have fallen a long way from The Great Debates of Lincoln and Douglas and it may take generations for us to reacquire that measure of social discipline.  But there’s no reason our generation cannot start the process.