Saturday, September 21, 2013

Debate Tip #4: Ignore Most of It

It is not good to eat too much honey,
    nor is it honorable to search out matters that are too deep. NIV Proverbs 25:27

Based on my experience, I think that there is an inverse relationship of how many topics you cover in a debate to its effectiveness of changing minds.  That seems counter-intuitive, I know.  You would think/hope that you could just dump out the evidence, have your opponent add it all up, and then come to the obviously natural conclusion that they've been wrong the whole time!  But, no, it doesn't work that way.

It can work that way for books, blogs, YouTube, etc., because they have all the time in the world to consider the data.  But when you are in a debate, you are in a discussion.  Dialog is key, and communication is essential, so you must press on without time for lengthy consideration.  Given that you and your opponent will be coming from completely different world views, true communication is going to be difficult, because you will use your words differently.

So keep it simple.  Focus on one or two points, or certainly no more than three.  Inevitably in defense of a position, other points will emerge which are worthy of their own exploration, but don't*.  The more you meander around, the more you just waste your time, because there is a good chance you are just talking past one another.

Instead, center on one or two points, and drive those through until you are absolutely sure that your opponent understands what you saying, even if they still disagree.  In fact, expect them to still disagree with you.  As mentioned in Tip #1, just because they disagree with you then, doesn't mean that there is no hope of them later coming around.

If your opponent protests, saying that you are ignoring his or her other arguments, just reply something to the effect that, while you are looking forward to discussing those points with them, you want to nail down the one or two points first before continuing on to others.

* There is an appropriate time to meander off topic, and we'll discuss that in the next Debate Tip.


  1. Very good points.
    Not only should we stick to 1 or 2 main points,
    but make sure those are points that you feel you could actually move your opponent to feel -- you need not convince them right then and there, but if they can "feel" your point (even while disagreeing), they may later consider it. Especially, as you say, you don't get too distracted. Not getting distracted, you will also set an example for their mind in the future, not to be distracted by itself (its many selves).

    You Proverbs quote was a bit obscure. How about this nearby one to match your essay on staying focused and not fluttering around -- find a place to land and don't fly too far off. Know what you seek:

    Proverbs 26:2 Like a fluttering bird or like a flying swallow,
    so a curse without cause does not come to rest.

  2. I usually enter debates on topics that I have consistently had the better of past opponents. No surprise that they try to back track and deflect to a new topic. I am always fine with this providing that they admit that they lost the debate on the first topic, which they rarely do.

  3. @Sabio
    Great point about the feeling. It's related to the next tip. :-)

    I guess the funny thing about some proverbs is that the "beauty" (or meaning) is in the eye of the beholder. ;-) The quote I used definitely could use some improvement to match. I was taking not searching too deep in the sense of not exploring every single angle about any given topic, but I can also see how it could be rendered with a contradictory meaning (relative to the post itself)! But your selection threw me off with the reference to curses. I do like the birds though. :-)

    Ha! Indeed, exploit your strengths! :-) I'm not surprised that there is a lack of people admitting defeat, but if they jump to a different topic, that's definitely an indicator. I hope that you usually sense, like Sabio suggested above, a feeling of understanding from the other side, as opposed to a "I'm losing this debate, let me just switch topics and try to get him that way" kind of reaction.

  4. What Grundy said, it's fine to move topics, but make sure they acknowledge the point you made on the previous topic. I have seen the atheist experience people do this quite well a number of times.

  5. Indeed Hausdorff. That was kind of the point I was trying to make as well, but I don't think that I did a good job with it. Changing topic is completely fine once you are "done". But I've had a tendency of building more and more simultaneous threads, and some threads would die off without any proper resolution. Those kinds of debates don't really go anywhere, in my experience.