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How to listen when debating

Those Americans who call themselves Republicans are disinclined to take seriously the views of those Americans who vote for the Democrats; and those Democrats will rarely see merit in the views of Republicans. Few Israelis will give ear to the cause of the Palestinians; and few prisoners in Gaza will defend the right of the Israelis to occupy the West Bank. Sunni and Shia in Iraq; Hindu and Muslim in India; Magyars and Gypsies in Hungary – one needs a mirror in order to see both sides of a coin at the same time. In the United Kingdom, those who voted to leave the European Union refuse to concede anything to those who voted to remain, and vice versa. The percentage of votes cast in 2016, on both sides, would be repeated, give or take a percentage point here or there, if the referendum was held again now.

I used to be a visiting lecturer, annually, in Transylvania, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was transferred from Hungary to Romania by the Treaty of Trianon, in 1920. A sizeable minority calls itself Hungarian: its members speak Hungarian at home; they send their children to Hungarian-speaking schools, who then seek employment in Hungarian-speaking sectors of the economy, and who vote for the Union of Democratic Hungarians in Romania. Few Romanians learn Hungarian; and few Hungarians learn Romanian. Relations between the two communities are amicable enough but there can hardly be said to be a meeting of minds.

I now teach a course to second-year undergraduates in Poland on the art of argument. The objective is to help them to make a case in an essay, dissertation, or oral presentation. They’re unused to the protocols of formal debate, as perhaps students in the United Kingdom are now. I recall that as an undergraduate myself I was called on to speak in a debate whose motion was: “This house believes that the Royal Family should be sent back to Hanover.” I recommend to students that they frame their essay title in question form: “Is there anything to be said for monarchy?” for example, to which they will intuitively give the answer Yes, or No – as we all would according to our knowledge and experience. I advise the students, if their intuition is to answer Yes, to examine the No position first, and if their answer would be No, to consider the Yes case first, being careful not to misrepresent it.

They find this difficult. I pose a number of questions in class (“Do schools teach what students need to learn?” “Should we all be eating less meat?” and so on), and quiz them about what their intuitive answer would be, and what the counter argument might be. I send them – along with a choice of questions – a diagram of the essay structure that I’ve proposed; but when it comes to submitting their online essay response, only a minority of them look at a counter argument and do it justice. The temptation is too strong to state their position at the outset, and to go straight into a catalogue of reasons to support it. Often, they’ll only then briefly consider a rival point of view, before confirming their original position in what’s bound to be a conclusion that has an arbitrary look to it, and that, therefore, fails to convince. In most cases, I send the essay back, recommending – if there are two cases – that they reverse them.

When I spoke in that debate about the monarchy, I was asked to oppose the motion, even though, at the time, I was something of a (small r) republican, remaining resolutely in my seat during the National Anthem. In planning my speech, I persuaded myself that there was a case for preserving a focus for pomp, separate from the centre of real power. When I tell my Polish students this story, and illustrate it by reference to the political set-up in Russia (and, indeed, in the United States), they nod in agreement. It doesn’t reduce the number of one-sided essays that I receive, though, and send back with a gentle admonition to consider what one who prosecutes the motion might have to say before they rush to oppose it. I know how Sisyphus must have felt.

Featured image: public domain via Unsplash.

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