In a few minutes the first part of the 20 deep Democratic debate will start. There’s no shortage of ways you can watch this event, think about it or talk about it, but most of the commentary and interpretation of it will attempt to limit how it can be seen. Debate is a hot issue these days: We are having more and more public debates and more and more regret, frustration, and confusion about them. We seem like debate zombies: We keep having events that disappoint us because, well, I guess we have to, or maybe we feel like they will eventually solve our disagreements, or whatever.
I think that these events can be valuable, but we suffer from the poverty of non-interpretation. We don’t have the ability to approach these events critically as fluid rhetorical events. We look to them to be events that burn away misrepresentation, bad thinking, etc. but they just don’t live up to that desire. And so we debunk them. Debates are horrible! But we need more debate!
I’d like to write a pre-debate post here that tries to address this, or at least start to. I want to offer three big, top of the mountain viewpoints that can help the debates be a bit more tolerable.
The problems with format are overcovered, to the detriment of answering the question: What can we get out of these events? I’ve talked about this in other places, so here’s the pre-debate summary that maybe can be a reference during the event tonight. Is it a debate? I don’t particularly care. It’s a rhetorical event called a debate, and audiences will be constituted and watch it, they will respond, and it will inform their thinking. That’s enough of a reason to pay attention for me.
So here are some things to keep in mind to keep from gouging out your eyes or smashing your TV:
Debates are not meant to resolve, solve, or finish anything
Debates are meant to be discourse stink bombs, spreading discourse, reasons to speak, motives for articulation all over the place. The Enlightenment hangover has us convinced that debates are meant to parse and narrow ideas to where all the questions are answered. I guess debate could be structured like that but this one won’t be. Most are not. Most are meant to get us talking about what we observed and heard. It’s meant to stimulate discussion. What we can do if we care about civic participation is use the debates as a stimulating text to get conversations going about deeply held political commitments. People are going to talk about this event anyway, so why not use it?
Winning and Losing is a perspective that strips out the most interesting elements of debate
What was said, what was alluded to, how people spoke and responded (or didn’t) are things that are often cited as reasons someone won or lost a debate. Instead of taking on a perspective that works like a funnel, why not take on another perspective? Thinking about how one advances one’s positions, explains oneself, or offers reasons why they think and act the way they do are important things for the advancement of conversation about politics, and should be attended to (opposed to what helps someone “be right”). Whatever perspective is taken on the debate it should be one that accounts for, or attends to, the elements of the performance that are worth talking about. Many times, focus on what won, or what was right, turns our ideas away from what might produce more speech about political issues and ideas, which is what is needed. Rhetoric only works if we are generating discourse, not shutting it down or silencing it. Talking is thinking in a lot of respects, so make sure to look for things that help broaden talk about political commitments.
Identification trumps Reason
I think there’s a lot of focus on fact checking, and who has a grasp of reality as an objective check on “bad” speech. I think instead we as rhetoricians should attend to the double-movement of identification/division when candidates speak. Instead of looking to correspondence with “facts” we can look for how this narrative is reflected and refracted within the audiences the candidates assume are there or are being constituted through this rich description of reality. Their description, and their corresponding plan for interacting with that description, should be evaluated by what sorts of identifications and divisions it encourages, makes easy, or pushes on. This is much more useful than a fact-check, as we all know that facts are easy to dismiss against one’s perspective of what the world is, looks like, and needs. This can help move discussions forward when they would be shut down over the disagreement of shared reality.
These are the big three guiding principles that I think can make these debates not only more tolerable to thinking people, but perhaps make them useful texts for riffing on or kindling important or deeper political discussion. Nevertheless, I still can’t believe they are actually doing this. And that everyone (candidates and journalists) think this is a really good idea. It’s not, but we have the power to take a perspective on it that might be helpful.