And We Have a Winner!

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.

3 Thoughts.

  1. Well said, Kyle. The same thought process you explicated with respect to the debate applies equally well to an overall analysis of determining which candidate to support.

    Think back to the election of 2008. Did Obama win because he had a better plan for the economy, a better vision of the United States’ role in foreign affairs, a better idea for how we can repair our broken culture? No. Obama won because he was “articulate,” his pants were “impeccably creased,” and he was “clean.” (Why Joe Biden wasn’t laughed out of town for that last comment escapes me, but that analysis is for another time.) And, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room, he won because he was the first black candidate who did not set alarm bells ringing simply because he was black–he appeared to be articulate (except when he was without his teleprompter) and seemed likable, and for many people that was enough. It was time to put the white man’s guilt over the evils of slavery (and slavery was evil) behind him, even though nobody now living in the United States has ever owned a black slave (at least not that I know of, and certainly not in the naked light of day).

    As long as elections are determined by television and radio soundbites, by who looks the most photogenic, and by who best speaks with an easy grace in a mellifluous voice, then the American people will continue to get the politicians they deserve: hollow men devoid of character, propelled by ambition, and driven by the will to power.

  2. Pingback: Let’s do quibble about epistemology! | Hang Together

  3. It’s inevitable that after a debate (political, religious or any other kind) people will want to ask who “won” in the sense of who advanced the interests of his side more effectively (i.e. moved voters) and some others will ask who “won” in the college debate club sense (i.e. who displayed more skill in debating by debate-club standards). But another important question is whether the debate itself did or did not advance the best interests of finding the truth and making the right decisions.

    Our problem is not that no one asks that last question, but that the people who do ask it tend to be “civility” goo-goos who equate niceness with truth-finding. Goo-goo standards aside, have the debates so far increased or decreased the degree to which Americans will decide responsibly?

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