by Jack McLean
The Origin of Debate: An Alternative to War
Although tone and content differ widely, human discourse occurs in a few, well-established modes that we all readily recognize. Everyday informal conversation is the primary means most humans use to communicate with colleagues, family, friends, neighbours and strangers alike. Outside of debating societies, debate remains the formal, institutional, mainly political expression of discourse.
Originally, debate was developed as an alternative to the devastating effects of war. Our English word debate comes from Middle English, via Latin and old French “disbattere”. To “debattle” would mean to replace the serious harm done by warfare by substituting instead a contest of human speech. In the political arena, however, debate remains very much a war–a war of words.
The Flaws of Political Debate
In the seeming absence of any alternative, some still tout debate as the best method of clarifying questions, determining the truth of any issue, and in the halls of government, enacting legislation. It requires no special insight, however, to realize that debate is a very flawed method of verbal exchange. The faults of debate are painfully obvious to anyone who has watched our professional politicians at work in the House of Commons.
We should not compromise with our dissatisfaction about the sad state of political discourse. We do have other choices. Whether or not these choices actually will be implemented in the long run remains a matter, not just of political will, but of discrimination and insight. Adventurous, creative and imaginative souls need to be found who are willing to depart from the paradoxically abnormal “norm” of letting loose an attack dog on either the position of an adversary or the adversary herself. It is not just the electoral system that requires reform but the whole tenor of conversation in Parliament.
Before suggesting an alternative form of discourse, it may be instructive to review the faults in the process of partisan political debate:
(1) Political debate is deliberately and unavoidably adversarial; acrimony and conflict are built into the nature of the medium. Regardless of the matter at issue, it is the duty of her Majesty’s loyal opposition to find fault, criticise and where possible, undermine the position being advocated. This is arguably counter-productive to the best interests of the nation. Debate is also based on the one-sided, winner-loser model. Reality is decidedly more subtle and complex than the winner-take-all scenario. Winners can be losers and losers can be winners, depending on the stakes at hand.
(2) Debate is politically partisan. Even if legislation is being proposed that could be beneficial to Canadians, it must be opposed in the interests of the party rather than the best interests of the county. Obstruction has become a routine strategy in the struggle for power. Except during non-political occasions, when parties set aside partisanship to make common cause–a welcome change and relief when it happens–goodwill and cooperation among parties remain rare.
(3) Debate routinely bogs down in intractable, fixed positions of them against us. This immovable stance results in frustration, anger and endless wrangling on all sides. Under these conditions, discouragement and desperation are bred and feed upon themselves as opponents dig in and fight back.
Small wonder that the youth of our country, the potential leaders of tomorrow, have become thoroughly disillusioned and understandably alienated from a political process that has become more like poison than panacea. Politics has become one nation-wide family feud that often resembles comedy rather than the stately art of governance.
Consultation is Dynamic, Harmonious Discourse that Seeks the Common Good
What I am proposing here will not work, of course, in the present political adversarial party structure. But the process of consultation may be used when occasions arise to develop a more collaborative, less confrontational method of working for the common weal.
Consultation works at all levels. It seeks to establish the truth of any question and/or to adopt the most effective solution to a problem, or the best means of action, by consulting either one another, a few others, or a group.
The basis of true consultation is founded on a relationship of trust. The consultative trustees should be viewed as collaborators, not as adversaries or antagonists, who potentially hold the key to the problem at hand. Consultation is not based on a struggle for power where one view intends to squash or overpower another.
Consultation is Collaborative, Democratic, Egalitarian and Self-Reliant
Although consultation does not exclude experts, it views the consultative body as having the collective wisdom, i.e. the intellectual, moral and spiritual resources to address the problem at hand and to find the most effective solution. In this sense, it is democratic, egalitarian and self-reliant. Consultation is not competitive but rather collaborative. It is not based on the questionable premise that the view of he who talks the fastest or the longest is the one that should prevail. Consultation seeks and listens attentively to every voice in the consultative body. The voice of wisdom is sometimes heard in the softest voice in the room, in the voice that speaks with carefully chosen words.
Unanimity is the aim of the consultative body, but if unanimity cannot be found, the majority of voices should prevail. Once the vote is taken, the minority view should not attempt to undermine the decision taken by the majority, but rather actively support the majority view. In this way, the collective wisdom possessed by the group will enable it to come to the realization that the majority view was not in fact the most effective solution or course of action. The issue can then be revisited and a former decision revised or amended in the light of reflection and tentative action.
Debate, as it is now practiced, has outworn its usefulness. More effective forms of discourse need to be found that use less confrontational, more collaborative and effective means of planning and problem-solving. Consultation stands out, it seems to me, as the most attractive alternative.