Friday, March 24, 2006

What's So Civil About Debate?

While reading the newspaper this evening, a particular headline caught my eye that stated something like, "Bush Open to Civil Debate on Immigration". This got me to thinking -- What IS a civil debate? In my experience, what most people mean by this term is that they welcome a robust discussion as long as you end up agreeing with whatever their stated position is!

This is not merely a Bush administration problem. No, it's extremely commonplace. You hear Republicans and Democrats call for civil debate. The same goes for Christians and atheists. People talk about it in the largest corporations and at small neighborhood meetings. The call for civil debate is everywhere.

If we examine these two words, I think we'll find that they aren't a good fit; they don't mesh well together. In a manner of speaking, it's like putting oil and water together. You wind up with either very oily water or watered down oil.

Civil means "sufficiently observing or befitting accepted social usages; not rude". A synonym often used in place of civil is polite. Debate, on the other hand, is a far more aggressive word. It means "to engage in argument by discussing opposing dispute".

Now, I realize that some people won't see a problem with the marriage of these two words. What's wrong with a polite argument? From my perspective, civil and polite are very subjective terms. What I may consider polite, you may consider downright vulgar. What you consider civil, I might call divisive.

Even further, arguments tend to devolve quickly into very emotional affairs. When most people that I know argue, there is a certain amount of tension in the air. If the argument lasts more than a minute or two, the conversation grows heated and some folks begin to lose their composure.

So, you see, in order to be civil, one must be rational. Unfortunately, arguments are more often the realm of emotion. Generally speaking, when rationality and emotions collide, the latter wins out.

For me, anyone who pleads for a civil debate is asking for something that doesn't objectively exist.


  1. Again, with the simple answers; debate is deemed civil until the language becomes abusive or obscene and/or someone throws the first punch. Non-civil debate would be combat.
    I consider debate, when not used to describe the formal, structured discussion, to be a euphamism for argument. It was an early attempt by the politically correct police to muddy our language so we never have to say what we really mean.

  2. Most debates (the ones between presidential candidates a disgustingly perfect example) feature people fighting against each other. Often, ad hominem arguments prevail - to me that is not civil.

    A civil debate would have members united against an agreed problem, trying to understand what the goal is (define what conditions mark the end of the problem) and then argue the merits of various strategies designed to bring about those conditions.

    The political atmosphere of this country is not condusive, in my opinion, to such a discussion.

    M: Well, I was told outside that...
    Q: Don't give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!
    M: What?
    Q: Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type really makes me puke, you vacuous, coffee-nosed, maloderous, pervert!!!
    M: Look, I CAME HERE FOR AN ARGUMENT, I'm not going to just stand...!!
    Q: OH, oh I'm sorry, but this is abuse.
    M: Oh, I see, well, that explains it.
    Q: Ah yes, you want room 12A, Just along the corridor.
    M: Oh, Thank you very much. Sorry.
    Q: Not at all.
    M: Thank You.
    (Under his breath) Stupid git!!

  4. Trey

    This reminds me of an episode of an old comedy series over here in the UK called "Yes Minister" and the later series "Yes Prime Minister". The chief civil servant, Sir Humphrey was describing a stand up row as a 'full and frank discussion'! Part of the code-speak that they used in order to persuade ministers not to do something was to tell them that it was a 'courageous' decision, i.e. this is going to cost the election.:-)))

    I must admit that, ever since, whenever papers report that frank discussions were held, I always imagine that there has been a stand up row that has just avoided descending into physical violence.


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