The great debates

This article appears in the issue July/August 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 7]


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Debategraph.org has ambitious goals. It would like to be the place you go to when you want to understand one of the difficult, contentious issues that we’ve been arguing about for years. Its topics include climate change, the Iranian nuclear program, the legalization of drugs, whether computers can think, genetic enhancements for sports, abortion, intelligent design and how to solve road congestion in the U.K. But, rather than just posting a topic and letting us go at it, Debategraph structures the debate by providing a particular toolset. The result is a map of the debate.

The tools are sophisticated. Users can refocus the map around particular arguments made in the debate. You can see a clickable outline. You can expose the metadata for each entry in the argument. Entries are expressed in short bursts, but expanded text can be added. There’s roomfor user evaluations and cross-relations. Despite this rich assortment enabling user contributions, though, the tools are designed to create an orderly system in which arguments are laid out, supported and countered.

It is, of course, a wiki. (What isn’t these days? Besides paper-based knowledge management journals, of course.) As Wikipedia has well taught us, a wiki doesn’t mean anything goes. Wikipedia tries to get everyone on the same page, and provides the tools to do so. Debategraph assumes we’re not all on the same page, and thus provides tools for exposing our differences in useful and civil ways.

Debategraph and the other sites going down similar paths (such as Debatepedia) provide a type of knowledge that may be useful. If you are researching an issue, you will find a compact outline of the major issues and points of view. But Debategraph also presents a picture—literally—of human disagreement. That picture makes the argument navigable, which is its point. But it also fits in nicely with our mental image of what disagreement looks like. And our mental image is wrong.

Debates are an interesting rhetorical form. They have precisely defined topics, rules, judges and winners. This makes them quite different from how we actually discuss and decide issues. Think about the last time you had a heated argument with someone. For example, a few days ago a lunch guest said he thought it was stupid of the Boston taxi drivers to object to being required to buy and use a "Fast Pass" transponder to avoid the cash-only lanes at tollbooths. His wife argued that the drivers don’t like being forced to postpone payment until the end of the month because it can put them in debt. The husband said that it only takes a little discipline to set aside the toll money they’re collecting from the passengers as they go.

Now, this debate isn’t as high up in the pantheon as abortion or whether to close Guantanamo, but it’s pretty typical of the types of issues we actually engage on. The arguments on both sides would indeed fit within the Debategraph structure. The wife and husband elicited arguments I’d never considered, so Debategraphing it might actually have been useful for the next couple that finds itself getting heated about this issue. But, the logical arguments in favor and against had little to do with that social interaction. Neither spouse was likely to change positions because of the arguments. And the arguments didn’t really get at the issue: He resents whining by people who lack the self-discipline that he prides himself on. She thinks those in positions of privilege lack the courage to acknowledge the gap between them and the working class. One thinks the world is basically fair, and the other thinks it is basically unfair. Yeah, go debate that.

Not to mention whatever is between them that invested this issue with some degree of emotion.

This wasn’t a nasty argument. They respect each other, enjoy each other and love each other. It was just a lunchtime conversation. Doing it as a formal debate would have been weird. It wouldn’t have resolved it, and it would have missed what the conversation was about and was for. Debates are a limited rhetorical form because conversation and the differences that makes conversations worth having overflow the banks of debate.

This isn’t by any means an argument against Debategraph or other attempts to systematize, rationalize and publicize our disagreements. We need every tool we can lay our hands on, and Debategraph looks quite promising. It’s just to say that laying out debates won’t resolve issues. It may, however, give rise to more good conversations.


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