By September 29, 2012 2 Comments Read More →

Open Letter to the President on the Debates – obama-v-romney

Dear Mr. President:

On October 3, 2012, Mr. Romney will meet you in the first presidential debate. The Republicans and the Romney campaign are hoping that this will be the beginning of their comeback. It is generally known that Mr. Romney has the best coaching money can buy and that he has been preparing diligently. It is further known that Mr. Romney is completely unconstrained by evidence, logic or known truths when seeking to make a case for his candidacy. Finally, while you are a great public speaker, you are not known as a superb debater. Therefore, it is essential that you find the time, energy, and motivation to prepare and perform far better than in previous presidential debating endeavors. With all this in mind, please consider the following musings on the 2012 presidential debates.

Effective debaters convey their thoughts with conviction and logic. They take the time to perfect several simple practices that are masterstrokes in the art of debating. First, they thoroughly research the topic from both pro and con angels. Second, they develop a powerful and winning argument for their side. Third, they prepare convincing rebuttals for the strong points likely to be raised by the other side. Fourth, they craft verbal traps to lure their opponents into blunders and blind alleys. Finally, they develop a stage presence that exudes confidence but eschews arrogance.

Following thorough, effective debaters deliver the winning argument for their side in several ways. They support their view with factual information. They present this information clearly and concisely, and raise only questions to which they know the answers. Winning debaters embody confidence; they unfailingly remain calm and collected while respecting their opponents as human beings. They are convincing, but not condescending. Masterful debaters lure their opponents into mistakes or cause them to reveal exploitable weakness. Winning debaters never flinch and they never grandstand.

Presentation is at best half the challenge for effective debaters. The other, and perhaps the more crucial task, is listening and responding to the other side. To triumph in this segment, effective debaters listen carefully to every word and argument of the other side. They scrutinize these thoroughly for potential clues or openings that facilitate a strong rebuttal. They leave no proposition or rationale unchallenged, and when and where possible they use the other side’s words against them.

A guideline followed by master debaters is – debate the claim, not the person. Consequently, master debaters realize they must display scrupulous courtesy toward their opposition. They do not want to engender sympathy among the audience for the opposing person that might unwarrantedly transfer to the opposition’s arguments. Debaters can only hope to persuade the audience, and they should strive to do so. Accordingly they resist the urge to insult, disparage, or otherwise malign the opponent or any other person associated with the opposition.

The converse is equally true. If the opponent uses ad hominem arguments, one can turn these to one’s advantage. Often times these attacks are signals of growing desperation on the part of one’s opponent. Ad hominem arguments prove that the opponent has exhausted logic and must resort to slander instead. This should be taken as an opening, but it should never be reciprocated. The key is to call attention to the switch from debating content to attacking character in a calm and non-defensive manner. Refusal to engage in mudslinging and name-calling will likely provoke ire in the opponent, and will certainly allow one to further distinguish oneself in the minds of the audience as a person of class and the voice of reason.

Whenever possible, one should launch one’s argument from common ground. Find a shared viewpoint or value and build the case that one’s perspective gives full weight to this commonality. This will make one seem reasonable and fair-minded to the audience and imperil the opponent’s credibility. For example champions of tolerance and inclusiveness should explain how discrimination and bigotry actually hurt the majority as well as the target groups by depriving the nation of the full talents and commitment of all its citizens. Finding common ground enhances one’s persuasive power. The audience is more likely to agree with one’s reasoning when it is based off of commonly-held beliefs, and one’s opponent will be effectively deprived of the ability to accuse one of not caring.
There are generally two methods by which one can challenge an argument. The first is by challenging its logical structure, either in its premises, conclusions, or by pointing out the use of various logical fallacies. This can be effective when the other side is careless enough to make arguments laden with fallacious reasoning. However, when one is debating more formidable opponents, one may need to concede a sound point and then assert a stronger alternative.

Because many issues in public policy have intelligent positions on many sides, one needs to offer a compelling case proving one’s position is more relevant and beneficial than that of one’s opponent. If one’s case is well argued and one’s points are solid enough, they should be able to prevail against the alternative, even without a direct attack. A reasoned recognition of a sound point by the opponent and a skillful pivot to trump the point with the argument that one’s position better serves the true import of the common value not only fails to hurt, but it also improves one’s stature in the minds of one’s audience. Truly masterful debaters can graciously acknowledge an opponent’s valid points and use them as a launching pad for an overwhelming rejoinder without breaking stride.
One cannot be prepared for every argument one’s opponent may make. Surely some obscure statistic or random study could be cited or an a priori argument one has never heard may be advanced. Rather than accuse the opponent of lying, one should confidently reply along these lines, “Even if that were true, it still doesn’t change the reality that…” In this manner, one shows steadiness and uses the strength of one’s opponent’s arguments as a springboard for an effective counter argument.

While winning debaters behave in a respectful manner toward their opponents, they must also find a way to passionately advocate a position without seeming unduly harsh toward the other side as human beings. Denunciations of an opponent’s position should be as passionate as necessary, but they must not denounce the opponents as persons directly. When one can make the case convincingly and concisely there is nothing wrong with pointing out the stupidity or harmfulness of a policy in the most compelling terms. Respecting one’s opponents does not mean respecting their assertions or proposals regardless of their validity or soundness. No matter what the subject matter or the contentiousness of the exchange, one must remain positive in presentation and constructive in one’s wording and demeanor. The goal is to be the confident, compelling voice of sweet reason.

Hammer away with evidence – surveys, statistics, quotes from relevant people and news reports – are useful elements to deploy in support of one’s case. Employ logic to show how one idea or point flows from another. Ask telling questions, for example, “What evidence do you have for that claim?” or “What would happen if every nation did that?” or a provocative “What is about this that makes you so angry?” Finally, and crucially, appeal to higher values; tap into the better angels of one’s audience. Political debates are not merely an effort to inform; they are also an effort to inspire. First convince people that one’s case is sound and then, inspire people that one’s case is worthy.

In judicious fashion, one should be prepared to use punchy one-liners. When it seems probable they would throw one’s opponent off his stride. Here are some good ones:

1. That begs the question.
2. That is beside the point.
3. Don’t get defensive.
4. You are comparing apples and oranges.
5. Where is your evidence?
6. Or the classic – “Where’s the beef?”

Provoke one’s opponent. Find something that incites anger and hit on this point until the opponent loses his temper and thus forfeits the argument. Alternatively distract one’s opponent. Throw out diversions which deflect the other side from their main points. Exaggerate your opponent’s positions. Take them way beyond their intended level and show how ridiculous and unreasonable these exaggerated positions are. Contradict confidently. Firmly denounce each of one’s opponent’s arguments as fallacious. Then, select one or two that one can soundly refute to prove the point.

Remember arguments between two people are very different from debates before an audience. In the first case one is trying to win over the other person. Therefore, it makes sense to look for ways of building consensus and to avoid belligerence in making one’s points. In front of an audience one can and should skillfully use all sorts of theatrical and rhetorical devices to bolster one’s case and befuddle one’s adversary. In debates humor is a highly effective tool if it is used at the right moments in delivered in a congenial manner. One must know the strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, values, and hot buttons of the other side. Relentlessly exploit the opponent’s weaknesses; turn the opposing arguments against themselves. Finally, never fail appeal to higher principles and purposes and thereby give the audience a basis for being on one’s side as well as being against one’s opponent.

In the attached video, the President’s challenger tries to project his penchant for prevarication onto the president. As in the case of master debaters, the video uses Myth Romney’s own words to refute this latest in a long train of falsehoods and misrepresentations.

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Posted in: Larry Conley, Politics, USA

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  • Sage advice Larry. Well said. 🙂

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  • Thanks Dani!

    I hope it has the same resonance as my O-Letter to the Democratic National Convention. We have to believe in magic!

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