In competitive high school debate, cross-examination is the period where the affirmative and negative team interact directly, posing and answering questions between each other. Like a mental game of chess, strategy is varied, but key. Yet there is one rule of thumb that all debaters can agree on: never concede— no matter what.
This approach is generally effective; admitting that your arguments falter is a surefire way to lose almost instantaneously in the eyes of many debate judges. Even if you know that you are absolutely wrong answering in a certain way to avoid conceding, you’re encouraged to do whatever it takes to maintain your position, regardless of how unreasonable you sound. A good debater should always stick to their guns.
However, unlike most aspects of competitive debate, such as public speaking and argument construction, this strategy of completely ignoring the sound logic of one’s opponent to avoid a minor concession has little to no rational real-world application. And yet, the extreme polarization on almost any modern issue is filled with this unreasonable argumentative strategy.
We see this flawed mentality everywhere.
At the 2010 MTV music awards, Lady Gaga wore her infamous meat dress made entirely of raw beef. Animal rights activists and groups, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), fired off, ranting about how the meat industry is fundamentally immoral in their treatment of animals and how her dress only perpetuated and normalized those injustices. In a similar way, those in the world of fashion fired off simply based on the outfit’s poor aesthetics because, if we’re being honest here, her ombre blue hair did not pair well with the deep red cuts of beef at all.
But Gaga’s fans responded by alluding to the idea that Gaga, their ‘queen,’ could do no wrong. They clung tightly to the mindset that she was some goddess of a higher level that was incapable of flaw or error, and refused to even consider anything else.
This example might seem laughable, but it is a primary case in which we find ourselves polarized because we cannot stand the concept of our position being incorrect. It also brings up the question of why do we do this in the first place.
According to Mark Goulston M.D., author of multiple books concerning psychology and interpersonal interaction, humans have three “brains”, or ways of thinking: the logical, the emotional, and the actional. When all three are aligned, we feel confident about our decisions and support for a particular stance. However, when these mentalities shift out of alignment, our brains have trouble processing their conflicting ideas and are unable to cope with the fact that they are incorrect.
So if your emotional brain’s passionate support for Lady Gaga comes in conflict with your logical brain’s realization that she wore the corpse of an animal, it is highly likely that the result is a panicked denial of error and an attempt to still justify the situation.
Tragically, though, this problem is not limited to award shows’ worst dressed lists.
In February, the New York Times published an editorial that explored the emphasis on the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ by conservatives. Under the Obama administration, officials preferred ‘violent extremism’ to describe the actions of the terrorist group ISIS, but many conservative politicians responded by claiming that they needed to call the threat by what it was, in their eyes Islamic, in order to actually counter it. The result was a debate that dragged on in the public eye, shifting the conversation away from how our country could actually mitigate the thousands of lives lost to ISIS attacks, to one on something so minuscule.
Wanting so badly to win on technicalities like phrasing, which in this context were based on Islamophobic sentiments, has serious impacts in the real world. Wanting so badly to be right, to win a point or argue just for the sake of arguing, elongates debate and prevents progress on greater problems like the issue at hand.
In fact, an opinion piece from the Spectator in 2015 explains that publicized television debates are pointless. Over time, such debates have morphed into arenas for rhetorical appeals, filled with ad hominem and even references to the size of one’s genitalia. This trumps any attempt to discuss actual issues and policy-making. In an effort to come across as perceptually dominant, such debaters make radical claims and avoid conceding at all costs.
However, when we adopt this combative mentality that only seeks to be correct, agreement even in a middle ground becomes unlikely, and problem-solving seems like a fantasy for the laundry list of problems our country seems to have.
In an increasingly contentious political climate, our ability to recognize that we cannot always be completely right is the only way to reach a place to hold the more valuable discussion on finding solutions to prevalent issues like gun control, the threat of ISIS, and yes, even animal rights and the meat industry.