I know this post is a bit untimely, but after thinking about the Saddleback church civil forum, I wonder why Rick Warren decided to distance it from a debate. In his opening comments, he was very clear that this was nothing like a debate, should not be confused with one, and clearly should not be evaluated as one. I probably should have posted it earlier, but I wanted to think about it. The forum cuts to the heart of one of the most important questions I find myself thinking about all the time: What are the benefits of having a debate over having a discussion, a forum, or another form of discourse? The Civil Forum at the Saddleback Church last week made me think about that question, and also made me consider a new, related question - Why would one want to prefer debate as a discourse format versus other forms of discourse?
I don't think this forum was obviously a debate by any means, but if it had been structured like a debate, I think it would have been a much better event. What we got from the Saddleback forum was all of the competitive "sportification" of a debate with none of the payoff. We had a competitive interview format where implicitly the audience was asked to judge a winner by the format itself. The format reminded me of a game show - Warren even alluded to it before Obama came out on stage by indicating that he had placed Sen. McCain in a "cone of silence backstage" so he could not hear any of the questions. I immediately thought of the final round game of Family Feud where, if you give the same answer as the person before you, a buzzer sounds and you have to answer again. There wasn't an explicit buzzer in this forum, but the rules were obviously the same. If someone gave the same answer, they would probably lose. The trick was whoever went first. Those answers would be the touchstone for the answers of the second person on the stage.
Having a competitive Q&A where obviously the function of the audience is to pass judgment on the quality of the answers without an opportunity for the candidates to react to each other's answers is a poor forum at best because it forecloses any ability for clarification or alteration of warrants and backing for claims made in the answers to the questions. This is what a debate provides. The "negative" parts of a debate that most people dislike were rather apparent, but because the candidates had no chance of interaction, the chance of the perception of "negative" aspects was low. The appearance of a civil form provided something that was not.
For example, when John McCain makes ridiculous claims such as "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot," in the civil forum format there is no follow up, questioning of that statement, or even a basic call for clarification. Warren just sat there grinning. Perhaps he agrees, I don't know. The point is the lack of engagement or challenge from anyone pushes the evaluation process into the mind, where nobody can hear it, and therefore nobody can benefit.
Likewise, there's no advantage for Obama to point out the glaring contradiction in priorities between Warren's question about when a baby gets human rights and the global problem of orphans. There's a lot of tension between these two concerns, how they both deal with the problem of unwanted people, and how they could be brought into fruitful combination. Maybe Obama's not smart enough to make the connections, I don't know. But in a debate format, one would be strategic to attempt to return to past issues in order to clarify the support, or the warrant, what have you. In this format, we are done with the question as soon as it is answered. There is no engagement or development of the ideas or statements in the light of a response or a different (perhaps not competitive) answer from someone else.
I'm not saying that the events labeled "debates" are any better. They are problematic as well. What I'm trying to point out is that the removal of the most obviously "debate" flavored parts of a political debate in order to make them more "civil" only ends up providing space for those worst elements, then highlighting them as desirable.