I have to confess that I did not watch more than thirty seconds of the debate. Honestly, I had taped Survivor and that had my undivided attention. However, I heard the next morning from almost everyone, left and right, that Romney had won the debate. But I was caused to pause by a self-declared ‘liberal on the left’ poet on NPR. In an attempt to capture the debate in verse, this poet declared (I won’t attempt to repeat his rhyme) that Romney had clearly won, but, the poet asked, was Romney right?
Consider just for a moment what it takes to win a debate. You must present your viewpoint in the most convincing and thoughtful way. And yet, the winner of the debate does not have to be right. Debate does allow each side to point out the flaws in the other’s view, and perhaps one side wins by convincing everyone that his or her viewpoint is more right than the other’s. But does making your viewpoint seem the most right actually make it right?
Years ago I watched a debate between an atheist and a Christian. The atheist went first and threw out perhaps five or six serious questions to the Christian. The Christian responded with the classical arguments for the existence of God, but never addressed the atheist’s challenges. Clearly the Christian was ‘right,’ but I and the people watching the debate with me all agreed that the Christian ‘lost’ the debate.
I think there is an aspect of American Culture that expects a clear winner. We don’t necessarily expect perfection or even a job done well, just a win done better than they other guy. We even refer to a team that plays a crummy game but somehow manages to get the victory as ‘escaping with a win.’ Americans love winners, even winners in debates, even when they are wrong. I noticed that polls shifted slightly after the debates, with Romney gaining more traction. Of course, Romney supporters stated that was because Romney is correct in his views, but how much of it is because Romney was the winner and we vote for winners. This is a real challenge to America to stop and consider what a candidate in a debate is saying and means rather than just how they say it. Perhaps they are not the most convincing, but maybe they are right. Maybe they are the most convincing, but maybe they are wrong. In the end, does it really matter who ‘wins’ versus who is the most ‘correct.’ I suppose the real challenge is to say the most ‘correct’ information the most convincingly.