Here’s the scene: Everybody in your class is required to give a critical response to the topic your teacher posts on the class discussion board. Pretty standard for an online class. Only this time, the teacher posts the topical equivalent of a dirty bomb. Within minutes, your class is embroiled in war, with students aligning into opposing forces. The discussion board is now engorged by debate. What do you do?
The Dying Art of Debate
Navigating online debate is a critical skill for online college students. Unfortunately, most students manage to complete their K–12 education without ever learning how to debate. Classroom debates require emotional maturity, both from students who must learn to engage one another respectfully and from teachers who must objectively allow debate to unfold naturally. To the latter point, effective classroom debating requires a “hands-off” and “free-form” discussion style from the teacher. A lot of teachers just don’t teach that way. Debate may be a critical skill, but teachers must cover a ton of other critical skills. There are lessons to finish, test questions to cover, etc. For most primary school educators, debate doesn’t fit into the curriculum.
Meanwhile, our exposure to debate on TV and radio is usually by way of hot-headed political pundits shouting over one another, or TV characters fighting for the sake of artificial drama. In politics, the national stage is suspended in a fractious and polarized climate where opponents demonize each other, and debates are subsumed by a litany of personal attacks and rushed judgments. And if you’ve argued with a friend or family member on the homefront, you may already have a bad taste in your mouth, because you’ve seen how mismanaged debates can slide into fighting, bitterness, and broken relationships.
In these contexts, debate is rarely painted in a positive light, which is a shame because when done correctly, a lively college debate can be deeply educational, even entertaining. The net effect is that for many of us, debating sounds like an ugly, angry, and divisive competition where egos displace education, and learning grinds to a halt.
Brothers and Sisters, this should not be! We could lament the looming death of this irreplaceable learning strategy, but for our purposes, we need to move on in life. If your online class is entrenched in the middle of a heated debate, you don’t have time to sit and wallow. You need to learn how to debate without losing a step. Your class grade may depend on it. When a debate pops up in your online class, whether it’s through discussion board, email conversation, social media thread, or video chat, these rules should help you steer through the dark waters, and perhaps even bring some light to the issue at hand.
1. Listen Carefully
As critical as speech, writing, and communication are to making a compelling argument, the most important part of debating actually happens when you are aren’t doing any of those things. The number one rule for effective communication is to listen carefully. That means refrain from rushed judgments. Pay attention so you can discern motivations, understand personality, identify implications, and so on. Often a debate is nothing more than a personality conflict, or a miscommunication. If you listen carefully, you might be able to detect what caused this disagreement, pinpoint the place where an initial misunderstanding occurred, and perhaps even solve the problem by backing up to the point where the communication train broke down. A little clarifying statement may depressurize the situation, deescalate the angry tone, and effectively save the day. The unspoken hero of skillful debate is one who listens well.
2. Be Fair
I would say “fight fair,” but we need to get the idea of “fighting” out of our heads. A healthy debate isn’t a fight. It’s a disagreement over ideas. We can all learn, explore, and even enjoy discovering new insights in the course of debate if we can maintain a healthy atmosphere. So, be fair. Don’t “fight dirty.” No name calling. No insults. Don’t mischaracterize your counterpart’s views on purpose. No mudslinging. If you are the target of these tactics, restrain yourself. Take the high road and stay on topic. Be respectful. And keep it civil. When we fight dirty, we risk derailing the debate and prompting the kind of train-wreck that can kill your grade, injure your relationship with your teacher and classmates, and—if it gets far enough out of hand —even get you kicked out of class. You don’t want that. So be fair.
3. Support Your Claims
You don’t have to “fight” to argue. When I say “argue,” I’m talking about building an evidence-based case for an idea. Healthy debates pit two (or more) opposing arguments against each other. Debate partners compare evidence, test one another’s logic and observations, and if successful, produce a mutually discernible conclusion about which argument is better. No one has to insult anyone. The key to a good rational argument is to beef up your opinions with good evidence so they aren’t merely opinions. Ideally, a fair-minded audience will be persuaded to agree with you because you can demonstrate that the most compelling evidence favors your view. Meanwhile, it hurts your case if you veer off topic by resorting to personal attacks, distorted characterizations of an opposing viewpoint, or outlandish conclusions simply designed to undermine these viewpoints. Each of these tactics is underscored by a logical fallacy that a good debate judge can easily spot. So that you can easily spot them as well, consider checking out our handy guide: Know Your Fallacies. Beyond that, instead of fighting, support your claims.
4. Speak as you would like to be spoken to
You have probably already heard the age-old counsel to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This applies to debates too. The golden rule of effective communication is to speak as you would like to be spoken to. In a debate, you would prefer that people speak to you respectfully, agreeing on good points you’ve made while respectfully countering points on which there remains disagreement. Do that with others and you can foster healthy collegial communication where it’s safe to disagree over things, and where consequently, it is also possible to work through your differences with mutual respect.
5. The softer, the briefer, the better
It has been said that a “soft answer turns away wrath.” Psychologically speaking, there’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb. People can become mean-spirited when they think it necessary to defend something they innately believe. But that hostility does not strengthen one’s position. Often, when someone shifts into “ALL CAPS MODE,” it can signal to others that they’ve come unhinged. They are no longer behaving in a rational or fair-minded manner. Ironically, when we talk a lot, and we talk loudly, that usually means we are less heard and less understood. Instead of “fighting fire with fire,” try fighting fire with water. When a debater comes at you with angry accusations, answer them with a kind and respectful response. Speaking softly can deflate an angry opponent, especially if you are framing your disagreement by saying gracious things about how you respect them, you see where they are coming from, you agree with many of their core values, and you appreciate their input.
Brevity is also important. Now it is true that sometimes you need to explain yourself by using lots of words and by clarifying sticky issues. The long-winded monologue has its place. Most of the time, however, “The more talk, the less truth.” It is better to speak efficiently, get your point across, and get out. Listen more than you talk. Otherwise, it may look like you are trying to control the conversation, talk over other people, and strong-arm them. People don’t like to be bullied. They’d rather be persuaded by a gracious and appealing perspective.
We could add more about navigating online college debates, including clarification on the distinction between formal and informal debates, or how to construct an airtight argument, but we’ll take our own advice and keep it brief. You have a good head start on many of your classmates if you can (1) listen carefully; (2) be fair; (3) support your claims; (4) follow the golden rule; and (5) speak softly and briefly.
We also welcome you to comment below with your own insights. Tell us about some of your most memorable online college debate experiences, especially any tips you might have for your fellow debaters.