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Macdonald DeWitt Library at SUNY Ulster

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice: Debate

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Civility vs. Incivility

Healthy debate is a desirable part of a community. In a healthy debate, people are given room to explain their point of view. In a healthy airing of differences, people on opposing sides of an argument can reach common ground and compromise or even agree to disagree and move on.

However, incivility occurs when people are not culturally competent. An individual who is not culturally competent might make negative assumptions about others’ values, lack an open mindset, or be inflexible in thinking. Instead of being tolerant of different points of view, they may try to shut down communication by not listening or by keeping someone with a different point of view from being heard at all. Out of frustration, a person who is uncivil may resort to name-calling or attempt to discredit another person, or may purposely sow confusion and division within a community. Incivility can also propagate violence. Such uncivil reactions to difficult issues are what make many people avoid certain topics altogether. Instead of seeking out diverse communities, people retreat to safe spaces where they will not be challenged by opposing opinions or have their beliefs contested.

Debates on difficult or divisive topics surrounding diversity, especially those promoting orchestrated change, are often passionate. People on each side may base their positions on deeply held beliefs, family traditions, personal experience, academic expertise, and a desire to effect change. With such a strong foundation, emotions can be intense, and debates can become uncivil.

Even when the disagreement is based on information rather than personal feelings, discussions can quickly turn to arguments. For example, in academic environments, it’s common to find extremely well-informed arguments in direct opposition to each other. Two well-known economics faculty members from your college could debate for hours on financial policies, with each professor’s position backed by data, research, and publications. Each person could feel very strongly that they are right and the other person is wrong. They may even feel that the approach proposed by their opponent would actually do damage to the country or to certain groups of people. But for this debate—whether it occurs over lunch or on an auditorium stage—to remain civil, the participants need to maintain certain standards of behavior.

Civility is a valued practice that takes advantage of cultural and political systems we have in place to work through disagreements while maintaining respect for others’ points of view. Civil behavior allows for a respectful airing of grievances. The benefit of civil discussion is that members of a community can hear different sides of an argument, weigh evidence, and decide for themselves which side to support.

Consider This - "Respectful Debate" Exercise

  1. Think about a time when you could not reach an agreement with someone on a controversial issue.
  2. Did you try to compromise, combining your points of view so that each of you would be partially satisfied?
  3. Did either of you shut down communication? Was ending the conversation a good choice? Why or why not?

How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground

Rules for Fair Debate

The courtroom and the public square are not the only places where serious debate takes place. Every day we tackle tough decisions that involve other people, some of whom have strong opposing points of view. To be successful in college, you will need to master sound and ethical approaches to argument, whether it be for a mathematical proof or an essay in a composition class.

An ethical approach to argument is one that proceeds from a position of empathy, and with a commitment to mutually observing a basic level of civility. A sound argument is one that is coherent and demonstrably the result of careful and sincere preparation and engagement. It should endeavor to avoid logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is a commonplace error in one’s thinking or rationale that undermines and discredits an argument

You probably already know how to be sensitive and thoughtful when giving feedback to a family member or friend. You think about their feelings and the best way to confront your disagreement without attacking them. Of course, sometimes it’s easier to be less sensitive with people who love you no matter what. Still, whether in a classroom, a workplace, or your family dinner table, there are rules for debating that help people with opposing points of view get to the heart of an issue while remaining civil:

  • Avoid direct insults and personal attacks—the quickest way to turn someone away from your discussion is to attack them personally. This is actually a common logical fallacy called ad hominem, which means “to the person,” and it means to attack the person rather than the issue.
  • Avoid generalizations and extreme examples—these are two more logical fallacies called bandwagon, or ad populum, and reduction to absurdity, or argumentum ad absurdum. The first is when you argue that everyone is doing something so it must be right. The second is when you argue that a belief or position would lead to an absurd or extreme outcome.
  • Avoid appealing to emotions rather than facts—it’s easy to get emotional if you’re debating something about which you feel passionate. Someone disagreeing with you can feel like a personal affront. This fallacy, called argument to compassion, appeals to one’s emotions and happens when we mistake feelings for facts. While strong and motivating, our feelings are not great arbiters of the truth.
  • Avoid irrelevant arguments—sometimes it’s easy to change the subject when we’re debating, especially if we feel flustered or like we’re not being heard. Irrelevant conclusion is the fallacy of introducing a topic that may or may not be sound logic but is not about the issue under debate.
  • Avoid appeal to bias—you may not have strong opinions on every topic but, no doubt, you are opinionated about things that matter to you. This strong view can create a bias, or a leaning toward an idea or belief. While there’s nothing wrong with having a strong opinion, you must be mindful to ensure that your bias doesn’t create prejudice. Ask yourself if your biases influence the ways in which you interact with other people and with ideas that differ from your own.
  • Avoid appeal to tradition—just because something worked in the past or was true in the past does not necessarily mean that it is true today. It’s easy to commit this fallacy, as we often default to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s appealing because it seems to be common sense. However, it ignores questions such as whether the existing or old policy truly works as well as it could and if new technology or new ways of thinking can offer an improvement. Old ways can certainly be good ways, but not simply because they are old.
  • Avoid making assumptions—often, we think we know enough about a topic or maybe even more than the person talking, so we jump ahead to the outcome. We assume we know what they’re referring to, thinking about, or even imagining, but this is a dangerous practice because it often leads to misunderstandings. In fact, most logical fallacies are the result of assuming.
  • Strive for root cause analysis—getting at the root cause of something means to dig deeper and deeper until you discover why a problem or disagreement occurred. Sometimes, the most obvious or immediate cause for a problem is not actually the most significant one. Discovering the root cause can help to resolve the conflict or reveal that there isn’t one at all.
  • Avoid obstinacy—in the heat of a debate, it’s easy to dig in your heels and refuse to acknowledge when you’re wrong. Your argument is at stake, and so is your ego. However, it’s important to give credit where it’s due and to say you’re wrong if you are. If you misquoted a fact or made an incorrect assumption, admit to it and move on.
  • Strive for resolution—while some people like to debate for the sake of debating, in the case of a true conflict, both parties should seek agreement, or at least a truce. One way to do this is to listen more than you speak. Listen, listen, listen: you’ll learn and perhaps make better points of your own if you deeply consider the other point of view.

Licenses and Attributions

LicenseCC BY: Attribution

Baldwin, A. (2020). College Success. OpenStax.