In our polarized world, debate has never been so important

14 January 2024
Clea Conner Chief Executive Officer, Open to Debate Foundation
This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • We are living in an era of political polarization and partisan division, where people espousing contrarian or dissenting viewpoints are shut down.
  • The antidote to these divisions and polarization is the structured exchange of opposing viewpoints: the debate.
  • By rehabilitating the role of debate into platforms for understanding, media, educators and policy-makers can help rebuild trust and foster global solidarity.

We are living in an era of historic, unprecedented levels of political polarization and partisan division. “The truth” can’t be trusted. “The facts” are selectively presented. Ideas are considered “too dangerous” to be expressed. “Cancellation” for holding contrarian or dissenting views has become a normalized practice in the media and the academy. Many of today’s public intellectuals outright refuse to share a stage with a colleague who disagrees with them or holds dissenting views. Removing intellectual accountability creates a fertile environment for echo chambers to thrive and anti-democratic norms to prosper. Disagreement should not equate to de-platforming.

Public policy conversations have devolved into the exchange of quippy sound-bites, not the exchange of substantive ideas. We too often see unhinged meandering shouting matches with little moderation, creating battlegrounds where only the loudest voices prevail.

Rehabilitating the role of debate

It’s time to rehabilitate the role of debate into platforms for understanding. Extremism thrives on simplicity. It’s the political equivalent of fast food: easy to consume and obviously not good for you. Populist rhetoric feeds on an environment where complex ideas are boiled down to bite-sized slogans designed to shut down conversations and silence opposing points of view. This reductionism is anathema to true debate, which relies on nuanced arguments and data-driven evidence to make informed decisions.

The antidote to polarization is the structured exchange of opposing viewpoints. When ideas are forced to stand the test of rigorous questioning, cross-examination, and fact checking, people listen and learn with curiosity – not contempt for their adversary. At Open to Debate, more than 32% of live audiences change their mind on contentious issues. At scale, that could change the direction we’re headed as a society.

A unique platform

Debate offers a unique platform for building empathy. It necessitates that participants not only articulate their viewpoints but also listen to and engage with opposing arguments. In a debate, issues are dissected and analyzed, offering audiences a comprehensive view rather than a polarized snapshot.

First, we must define victory in debates. Winning should not be about overpowering your opponent with rhetoric, but about bridging the gap of understanding between disparate viewpoints. Imagine a format that values reflective pauses and encourages participants to genuinely consider the perspectives of their counterparts. This isn’t about diluting the rigour of arguments; it’s about enriching them with a dimension of human empathy that’s often missing in our polarized discourse. The true measure of a successful debate should be the extent to which it fosters mutual understanding and opens avenues for continued dialogue. The goal is to emerge not with a winner and a loser, but with a richer, more nuanced appreciation for complex issues and solutions.

Second, let’s broaden the scope of debates. Moving beyond the confines of policy agendas and politics, we should include narratives of personal experience and cultural context. This shift can transform abstract discussions into tangible, relatable human stories, offering a clearer window into how policies and ideas affect real lives.

Here’s where debate plays the most critical role: in a well-structured debate, facts are scrutinized, sources are questioned, and arguments are dissected. This process is fundamental to rebuilding trust and searching for a collective truth driven by critical thinking. True debate, the kind that exposes audiences to a spectrum of viewpoints, is essential in dismantling echo chambers and fostering a more inclusive and comprehensive public discourse.

We stand at a crossroads. The path we choose will determine the future of public discourse and our ability to solve problems on a global scale. My call is for media, educators and policy-makers to embrace debate. It’s not just about presenting different viewpoints; it’s about engaging with them, challenging them, and, most importantly, learning from them. This approach might just be the key to addressing the polarization and distrust that is eroding the fabric of our global society.