Is Debating Part of Our Nature?

Perhaps the most heated thing going on in politics today is over the Syrian conflict and the United States’ possible role in it. President Obama has made his opinion on the matter clear, he supports a carefully planned strike at specific targets in Syria but has promised no actual American “boots” onto Syrian soil. Yet, the only thing keeping his for ordering the attack is his lack of support from Congress. Some argue the president, being the commander in chief of the armed forces has the right to send in troops if he feels it is in the nation’s domestic and international security. Others, however, feel that Congress should decide play a role in vital diplomatic situations in order to keep the president’s power in check.

On September 10, 2013 debate teams from several universities including George Washington University, Georgetown University, University of Pittsburgh, and other met at George Washington University to debate that very question, what role should the president play concerning war? Throughout the debate, many types of rhetorical devices were used back and forth all to get across their idea across.

For the most part, debates, at least to my understanding, would appeal to logos, and occasionally to ethos, to get their points across. One would want to simply overwhelm their opponent with concrete evidence, facts, to show how they are right and those that debate against them are wrong. What I found interesting was that at the beginning of the debate, both of the opening statement makers from either side began the statements with appeals to pathos. For example, when the student from George Washington made her opening statement for limited war rights to the President, she initially stated that her generation (born after around 1990) has known nothing other than war. She mentions how it was a sad fact that our generation has almost never remembered or seen peace. What effects do you think such an appeal to pathos would have on an audience? Does such a technique that both opening statement makers make do more than just collect the audience’s attention?

          Further into the debate, there was the typical crossfire of words as each team tried to pull apart the argument of the other. One interesting aspect of the debate that I noticed was the fact that many of the debaters relied heavily on the usage of specific examples. “If such a law was passed”, they said, “such legislature would be stuck in debate in Congress for month, putting our national security at risk”. Back and forth, each debater would take stabs at each other in such a way. As a person with little experience in watching debates, it was slightly difficult to follow the dialogue. Do you think such hypothetical scenarios are actually that helpful in a debate. It is quite easy to fake a scenario of what is going to happen, exaggerating some things while underplaying others. In debates such as these, do you think that happens often, and if it does, do you think it is necessary, or even fair?

We debate every day, whether it be for important things or things that really are not important. What specific tools in debates do you or people in general use to get their points across? This got me thinking. Debating, on an evolutionary aspect was something that could be said to be that was beneficial to humans, meaning if a person could debate well, they were more likely to get what they wanted. Do you think humans have evolved to debate successfully for what they want and do you think we have evolved to have an innate ability to debate or compete with each other? 

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7 Responses to Is Debating Part of Our Nature?

  1. roberly2 says:

    Mykkros brings up several interesting points in his analysis of the debate that occurred on Thursday, some that I agree with and others that I do not.

    He is very right in his observation that the opening and closing statements on both sides use pathos to draw audiences attention where the middle speakers pound the audience with logos. In cross examination debate it is popular to snare audience attention with an attention grabber whose purpose is to do little more than ensure we are listening, at any cost. Often (especially in CX debate), this becomes a glorified contest of who can evoke the biggest emotional response with the most outrageous appeal to pathos. I liked how Mykkros noted, though, that there was significant appeal to logos as well because this often goes ignored in favor of emotional appeals when, in fact, debaters win rounds with sound evidence and logical support.

    Mykkros does question, however, the fairness and the soundness of making up hypotheticals to help each side’s case. This is, in fact, a staple of CX debate, one that makes it unique, There is a running joke in CX that whoever can prove best the other side’s policy will lead to global thermonuclear war will win the round. Whether or not it is fair is not as significant as using it as a tactic of emotional appeal .The “if this legislation is passed/not passed…then” clauses are used much in the same way the appeals to pathos at the beginning are; it is an attempt to force an emotional reaction from the audience strong enough that we will remember it later.

    Mykkros brings up an interesting point about debate and evolution- one I find fascinating if a little outlandinish. It’s very interesting to think we might have evolved to become humans who debate as part of our biology, but I don’t know if there would be evidentiary support for something like that. Maybe we simply evolved to become creatures who communicate in a manner that is so complicated we must debate in order to ever get anything we want.

    • I agree with the comment in your last paragraph, it may not be part of our biology directly, it would make sense that as long as there have been humans, they have found ways to communicate with each other. As long as humans have been communicating, there have almost certainly been ideological differences, and what do those lead to: debate. I would further the argument that the best appeal comes through pathos. I agree with tksef that pathos rapped in ethos and logos is the proper way to structure an argument. Humans are intrinsically emotional beings, however we are also intrinsically logical beings, biologically the brain is wired to find patterns and make things make sense. If something makes sense and is able to activate visceral emotions, it is easy to sell a point in a debate. I agree with some of the other comments that state we still have a long way to go in the art of debate.This makes sense considering it is certainly an art, it is something asymptotic, we work to get better, but it is likely never perfected. This is why law, which is essentially professional debating, is considered a practice, there is always something new to be learned, it moves forward, much like humanity does in general. It is major part of life.

  2. tksekf says:

    I do think that debating is a part of human nature. I agree with roberly2’s opinion: “Maybe we simply evolved to become creatures who communicate in a manner that is so complicated we must debate in order to ever get anything we want.”, but I see it in a more optimistic way. Humans have evolved to be very social animals, and need to communicate, bargain, and make policies that would allow us to stay together under certain controls. I find that debating is definitely the best way to do this. The international society we have today would not have been possible without debates. I believe communicating has naturally evolved into debating, and is still evolving, as human societies get aggregated into one global society.

    In the same context, I think using pathos and specific examples in debates as mykkros mentioned in the post are perfectly fine technics to use. After all, debates are one of the many methods of communicating. If by using pathos and specific examples, the debaters can get their opinion across, then that is how they will communicate in debates. After that, it would be up to the audience or the opponent debaters to decide whether or not these emotional appeals and examples the debaters are using are appropriate for the discussion.

  3. Sl1017 says:

    I also watched the debate and as someone who has never witnessed a formal debate I was surprised by the large amount of pathos used to construct an argument. While some pathos can be helpful in appealing to your audience, I found myself less persuaded by the speeches that were majority pathos. Similarly, the speeches that referenced theoretical situations lacked a lasting and intelligent impression. Instead of talking about the facts and appealing to a more reliable rhetoric like logos or ethos which would add a lot of credibility to their argument, they diverge from the hard evidence and talk theoretically.
    I agree with tksekf “if by using pathos and specific examples, the debaters can get their opinion across, then that is how they will communicate in debates.” I believe that to be the only effective area where pathos can be used.
    Human’s are hard wired to be debaters, we debate about everything, my roommates are currently as I type this debating about politics.
    Mykkros asks “Do you think humans have evolved to debate successfully?” And I say no, we still have a tremendous amount of work to do. Take the senate for example and the constant disagreement that gets us nowhere between the GOP and the DFL.

  4. johnd0pe says:

    While I personally find logos and, to a somewhat lesser extent, ethos based arguments most effective, I absolutely recognize that certain matters call for a touch of pathos. Generally, people will fail to influence me with their sob stories, especially when they’re exaggerated and seem insincere. But when it comes to an issue like war, emotion must be incorporated to effectively pose an argument from the point of view of a citizen who doesn’t back the cause.

    To treat war as a strictly factual and objective matter is not only shallow, it is inhuman. Countless innocent people, with far more to lose than to gain from war, are inevitably affected by the actions of their leaders. Whether it be in the form of physical destruction, death or injury of a loved one, or emotional trauma, many people are left to deal with the residual effects of warfare. These costs are more than what can be represented by mere facts and figures. It isn’t possible to fully comprehend the implications of forced military intervention without trying to grasp the humanistic factors involved. Perhaps politicians and some of the general public are too far removed from these emotional costs that they fail to consider anything more than the political and logistical factors of the matter. For this reason, pathos is a truly essential component of an effective argument regarding military action.

  5. findwhatwind says:

    I think it is fascinating to look at debating as an evolutionary trait, but I think this has much more to do with Social Darwinism than with actual biological evolution, for the main reason that humans are not genetically endowed with the ability to debate, but it is rather a learned behavior. I do think this would be an interesting way to look at Social Darwinism however, and it would be fascinating to take a look at very successful individuals and their abilities of persuasion, and see in a very different way how selection occurs in a social environment. While I believe this can be compared to biological evolution, as it is still an example of selection, I do not believe the ability to debate has any effect on biological evolution.

  6. mykkros says:

    I think that there was some confusion in what I meant when I said that debating was something that was affected by evolution. What I meant to say was the humans, being social creatures, learned to communicate and interact with each other in a certain way. Being a good communicator was evolutionary beneficial essentially. Like how many scientists believe that personalities, are, in some part, genetic, is it that much a stretch to think that useful communication tools, such as debating are genetic too?

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