Debate Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive

17 April 2023
Peter Coy

There are good debates and bad debates. The bad ones are like the argument sketch from the old British television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A man who has paid to have an argument complains that his interlocutor is simply contradicting him. The argument is an intellectual process, he insists. “Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. The interlocutor responds, No, it isn’t.

Monty Python was a half-century ahead of its time. A lot of debate today is nothing but gainsaying, bludgeoning, and maneuvering for tactical advantage without regard for the truth. The modern exemplar of debate-as-conflict is former President Donald Trump, who in defiance of what everyone saw continues to describe the attack on the Capitol in 2021 as a mostly peaceful act of love.

What makes debate a topic for economics is that free markets don’t fare well in free-for-alls. They require social cohesiveness. To do business, people don’t have to agree with one another, but they do have to treat one another with respect and fairness. Bad debate deepens divisions; good debate can heal them.

That brings me to Open to Debate, the new name of what was founded as Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates. Since 2006, the nonprofit New York-based organization has staged more than 200 debates on propositions and questions including Declinists Be Damned: Bet on America, Is the Democratic Party Too Far Left? and Artificial Intelligence: The Risks Could Outweigh the Rewards.

Until COVID hit, Intelligence Squared used a live, gladiator-style format. Members of the audience would vote for the side they agreed with before the debate and again after it. The side that managed to shift opinion in its direction won, even if it still commanded only minority support. One gratifying finding was that, on average, 32 percent of those in the audience changed their minds.

In April 2020, Intelligence Squared stopped having live events. In July 2022, it stopped declaring a winner of the debates. It has since resumed some live events, but it hasn’t brought back the declaration of a winner and doesn’t intend to. It has been using a kinder and gentler format for a less kind and gentle era.

Last week, Intelligence Squared took another step away from the gladiator format by changing its name and website and announcing a new focus on outreach, vowing that at scale its approach can change the direction we’re headed in America.Its first debates as Open to Debate: Is Florida Eating New York’s Lunch? and Are Men Finished and Should We Help Them?

Can better debate really change the nation’s direction? In a small way, maybe. To find out more, I interviewed Clea Conner, the chief executive of Open to Debate, as well as John Donvan, who is the moderator of the debates and a former chief White House correspondent for ABC News.

Conner told me that the organization abandoned the whole win/lose construct because it was hindering its mission of promoting dialogue. She said Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a contributing New York Times Opinion writer, is working with Open to Debate on finding new data points to measure how debate opens minds.