I think debates are in some ways quite similar to sport. Sports, whether we’re talking about soccer, basketball, tennis or any other code, need rules. The rules aren’t just necessary, they define the game itself.
If we’re coming together with friends for a casual game, those rules spring from a friendly agreement. We and our friends all know the rules, agree to abide by them, and refrain from violating them because the game’s objective is shared – we just want to have fun. Neither party wants the rules, and hence the game, to break down. Our biggest motivation is probably just fun. We’re not looking to win at any cost.
As a sporting group grows larger, the rules become much harder to coordinate. A more varied set of people join, members are less known and trusted by each other, allegiances and loyalties form between players and within teams, participants become more competitive, and winning becomes more and more important. In these circumstances, friendly agreements just won’t cut it. Cheating appears – the breaking of the rules while superficially appearing to obey them. Cheating can slowly grow like a cancer, twisting the rules and ultimately destroying the game itself. The methods of cheating are specific to the game being played, but often the most direct path is intimidation or an attack on the opponent – playing the man or woman instead of playing the ball.
Cheating can be the result of that one scumbag individual for whom ‘winning’ is much more important than integrity or fun. Other times, it can be an incremental and reciprocal process. Team A, experiencing the natural human bias favouring themselves and their in-group, decides Team B is cheating, and thinks “if they’re going to break the rules, so will we”. Team B sees this, and responds in kind. And so on, ad infinitum, escalating until the game is destroyed.
Cheating sucks because it advantages the dishonourable (who typically lack the skills to win fairly), and because it creates a vicious cycle that drives away honest players and furthers the likelihood of cheating. If it’s not addressed, the match, and ultimately the sport itself, is finished.
The universally recognised solution to this problem is umpires and referees. They act as neutral observers and managers of the game, controlling its flow, reminding everyone of the rules, and punishing those who break them (deliberately or otherwise). They’re usually not someone simply plucked from street or from one of the teams – they’re experts on the rules, they’re impeccably neutral, and they’re skilled in the subtleties of the game as well as the ways cheating can undermine it. Referees also need management themselves, because any bias hiding behind their position is especially harmful. But if they’re good, they love managing the game to its optimum – an encounter with total fairness, one that brings out the best in the players.
Political, social and even academic debates aren’t like a friendly match between buddies, they’re more like huge, ultra-competitive sports. Even if it’s a debate between just two people in a random chat forum on the Internet, those people are part of a larger clash of ideas, of tribes. In these ‘sports’, the stakes are immeasurably higher, the teams larger and more ruthless, the rules less agreed upon. There’s a huge incentive to cheat. Players will misrepresent their opponent, intimidate, appeal to emotion to cover a lack of evidence, equivocate and play word games, dance between motte-and-bailey, take quotes out of context, avoid addressing an important issue. And if they don’t do any of this, sometimes even their own team can attack them for being ‘soft on the bad guys’.
Yet somehow humanity hasn’t figured out that we need referees for such things. Debates need referees. And not just referees of the passive kind that we see in a presidential debate, simply allotting each ‘player’ a poorly-enforced space to talk. We need ones that will actively enforce a structure and flow that we know gives the best chance for the insightful truth to become clear to the audience, if not the participants themselves. At the same time, they must enforce these rules but remain neutral in regards to the content and arguments.
The spikey-pit-trap of all this is, of course, “what should those rules be, and who should be chosen to enforce them?” After all, if there’s even the slightest bias in the rules or the referee, the entire endeavour is fatally undermined. I would argue that we have one set of rules that has stood the test of time in neutrality and integrity – the rules of logic and the restriction of fallacies. The referees should actively point out fallacious arguments, ask for evidence for suspicious empirical claims, and demand clarity from the participants. And these referees can’t be a player for one the teams, nor an unskilled person off the street. It certainly is not a role to be entrusted to the media – they’d prefer Team A to brawl with Team B at every opportunity, because it sells more papers and baits more clicks. To select the wrong referees, or to let the rules become politicised with even the slightest hint of an agenda would undermine everything. No, to prevent disastrous consequences, the best referees must be drawn from a skilled group who take absolutely pride in their neutrality and reason. We can never ensure perfection, but perhaps such a group could work towards it with careful use of reputation, background (no foxes guarding the hen-house), and transparency. With the right referees, perhaps we can start to pull the discussion of our most important issues out of the stinking swamp of tribal warfare into which it has sunk.