Admit I’m right!!! The value of debate in a polarized world

This past week, Bill Nye (self-proclaimed “science guy”) and Ken Ham (head of the Creation Museum) debated the merits of creationism vs. science/evolution.  (If you want to watch it, you can do so here.)  There was a lot of hubbub on both sides of the aisle on this one, with the prevailing opinion being why bother?  Scientists, in particular, were not terribly supportive of Nye’s decision to participate, a fact reflected in their feedback that it wasn’t “a total disaster.”

The crux of the mindset is that since the two sides are SO far apart in interpretation and beliefs, there is no point in having a conversation about it.

Well, I say hogwash.  Or at the very least, I call shenanigans.

Our society is increasingly polarized – we are bombarded by a black or white rhetoric that feels bound and determined to force us to choose a side and do it now.  The internet has a hand in this – those with fringe beliefs can find like-minded individuals more easily than ever before.  And even better, you can filter out all the stuff you don’t believe in, thereby validating only your opinion.

With apologies to Bill Watterson – I love Calvin & Hobbes.

The value of debate depends on what your goal for the conversation is. If you want to instantly change the mind of someone who lives by deeply held beliefs – no, there is no point.  However, if you want to start the dialogue that will allow each side to develop empathy and understanding about the others’ point of view, debate can be incredibly beneficial.

I don’t know what the motivation was for Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  I suspect both sides wanted to try and explain their point of view while winning some folks over to their way of thinking.  (Given that the debate was held at the Creation Museum, I suspect Nye had a harder time of it.)  But I applaud them both for at least starting the dialogue – if not for their own beliefs, then for those who listened.

The mere fact that we as a society are talking about the debate requires us to consider our own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others.  We are forced to consider the why behind our arguments, and weigh the merits of our whys.  And while we may seldom change our minds, we will sometimes concede that while we don’t agree with the other side, we can at least understand why they think that way.

The debate avoidance phenomenon is alive and well in the business world, too.  Here are some reasons we shy away from the conversation and some things to keep in mind to overcome them:

  • We think we’re Nostradamus: Ever notice how many psychics you work with? –  “Why even ask?  They’ll just say no.” “I’ll just put Ken into that position, no one else would want to try for it anyway.” “Feedback is useless because they just ignore it.”  If you can predict the future, go by a Powerball ticket already.
  • Conflict is icky: The core of every debate is a difference of opinion, and people seem to think that conflict means no one will like them or that the team doesn’t get along.  Remember – conflict is inherent to progress.  You can’t move forward without recognizing that the status quo needs to change.
  • People can be jerks: Not everyone debates professionally.  While most people can have a discussion about a difference of opinions like an adult, there’s always that one person who yells, or cries on command, or is incredibly passive aggressive.  Get over it. Say your piece, remind them about the goal of the conversation, and control what you can control (meaning you).  And remember: most of the time, they resort to these tactics because they want you to drop it – don’t fall for it!
  • What if I’m wrong?: It’s true – you may end up changing your position after the debate.  Oh, the terror!  You mean you were able to consider all sides of an issue and make an unbiased decision?  Yeah, we wouldn’t want that. [sarcasm – sorry!]

There are some concepts that we all just hang on to, regardless of the evidence.  Some call it faith, some call it fallacy, some call it lies, some call it conspiracy.  Whatever you call it, why not talk about it?  The only way we grow is to be exposed to new things…so go find a new thing and talk about it.

The worst that can happen is that you’ve had a conversation and maybe learned something new.  Isn’t that worth it?

Have you had a debate that gave you a new perspective? Share in the comments!