• Jennifer Barnick

The Age of Tribalism and the Need for Civil Debate


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

In high school, I was a competitive debater. Personally, learning how to formally debate has proved over the years to be one of my very finest of educations as real debate (not fighting or merely spouting off your feelings about something) is actually a methodical discipline involving listening, logic, research, and thinking.

Whenever I talk about my experiences of being a competitive debater, I always first explain that you must debate both sides of an issue in competition. I go on further to explain that learning how to research and passionately argue BOTH sides of an issue, be it the death penalty or gun control, is a life-changing intellectual exercise, as it shows you that while you may not personally agree with one side or the other, you intellectually understand that both have compelling, logical arguments grounded in ample facts. You know this because you had to dig up facts and form compelling arguments for both sides of an issue with the intention to win both your ‘pro’ debate as well as your ‘con’ debate. Besides learning to be more logical and fact-based and less attached to your own opinions, debate teaches you to be skeptical. After learning that you can win any side of an argument, depending on what facts you use and how well you form a logical argument, you start to see through other people’s opinions as being merely just that—their opinion. They very well might be armed with tons of facts; however, as a competitive debater, I can tell you there is a whole host of other facts that could easily prove them wrong. When you learn how to formally debate, it becomes virtually impossible for you to be swayed by people’s arguments, instead, you learn to view all sides and then, after some consideration, come to a determination.

Today, I see more than ever the need for civil debate. People have become so rigid and identified with their tribe or opinion they no longer value the crucial intellectual ground of uncertainty and skepticism. Uncertainty and skepticism are the roots of some of our very best intellectual, cultural, philosophical and scientific advances. Greatness comes from uncertain minds. Science starts with a question. Some of the very best works of fiction begin with the writer asking the question ‘what if?’ Today, we live in an environment where everybody seems to know everything with blind certainty. And what is even worse than the folly of blind certainty is the blurring of the personal self with ideas or values. Consequently, opposing ideas as well the person arguing them are often viciously attacked (as though an opposing idea might actually cause physical harm), and now with social media, these attacks can be life-altering for the target as job loss and death threats are the new normal if your ideas are attacked heavily enough online. People are far more than their opinions on various subjects. In fact, some of the people in my life I love and respect the most have very different opinions on a full range of subjects.

Learning the art of debate and learning to appreciate civil debate is a tremendous, life-enhancing exercise. Debate is not just about learning how to win an argument. Debate is about learning how to carefully listen to the other side, how to gather facts properly by finding facts that support both sides of the argument, and learning how to think and frame your ideas in a logical and not personal or emotional way. Lastly, learning the art of debate as well as learning to appreciate civil debate is a way to process facts, opinions, and issues with a strong dose of skepticism.

Below are two great video links: the first is the intro video to a debate education series. I will admit the videos from TheGreatDebate are not of the highest sound and visual quality, but the content is really good. It’s well worth it to at least see the intro video. The second video link is to the Munk Debate on political correctness. The Munk Debates are a series of prestigious debates that touch on pressing issues of our time (here is the link to the Munk Debate website). The political correctness debate is great to watch, and I heartily encourage you to not only watch it but explore the website and check out their other debates. They usually pick very ‘hot button’ issues, and it’s refreshing to see them thoughtfully debated (though the debates are not without emotional drama—humans will always be humans) without the situation degrading into a shouting match or personal fight.

Jennifer Barnick

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.


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