Opposition is key to understanding the issues

Published 9:23 am Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Point of View by Nancy Overgaard

With the political season underway, I dug out an old college textbook to brush up on principles of effective debate. As I began to read, I rediscovered an intriguing concept that makes, “Argumentation: Reasoning in Communication,” by I. Vernon Jensen (1981), far more than a primer on debate skills and a timely lesson for us all.

Nancy Overgaard

Nancy Overgaard

The author opens by presenting the case for why public debate of political issues is so vital to democracy and our American political system. “Argument and debate,” Jensen contends, are not just a fascinating facet of our history, they “are at the heart of democracy and each needs the other.”

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To clarify, the author is not speaking of argument in the sense of being argumentative or quarrelsome. He is speaking of argument in the sense of reasoned debate as defined by Rieke and Sillars (1975). In it, one party advances a claim and supports it with reason. Another party advances a competing claim and supports it with reason. Then both claims are subjected to critique and evaluation until one gains greater adherence. Or, in the best of all worlds, an optimal mutually satisfying resolution is reached.

To support his contention that argument and debate are vital to our political system, Jensen cites historical heavyweights as Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), ancient forerunners to modern democracy, and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 A.D.) who opined on democracy two millennia later.

Pericles, as history shows, was imperfect at best in his own exercise of democracy. Even so, he formulated key principles on democracy that nations as ours still aspire to. On the subject of debate Pericles wrote that, “Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”

John Stuart Mill stressed the importance of intentionally including opposing viewpoints in discussion. He reasoned, “Since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”

Jensen noted that, in our own nation, “We have tried to put into practice the notion that ideas publicly tested will lead to wiser decisions, to peaceful change, to programs which will secure acceptance and commitment from the widest possible portion of society.”

Yet, somehow, it seems we have lost, or are in danger of losing sight of this foundational principle thought to undergird democracy.

Jensen devoted his second chapter to ethical guidelines in public communication. There, he identifies numerous unethical practices that thwart debate, and, thereby, frustrate the greater goal of determining the wisest course of action. Sadly, those unethical practices sound all too familiar, being practiced with disheartening regularity by local, state and national leaders.

“Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind about ethics in argumentation,” Jensen writes, “is that communicators ought to be honest.” One would think that would be understood. Yet how often is this basic lesson in communication intentionally violated by public speakers?

Jensen specifies that, as a dimension of honesty, public spokespeople ought to be accurate and complete in what they say. They ought not to intentionally give inaccurate information, leave out information or cite out of context. Disappointingly, those principles are breached daily.

As prevalent as that kind of compromise is, there is another type of ethical breach that seems even more widespread in current political communication and more destructive. That is the practice of deliberately creating false and misleading associations in an effort to “induce unwarranted deprecation.”

That is to say, rather than openly debate the issues, opponents are branded in ways intended to be misleading. In the process, healthy debate is derailed, but at what cost to democracy?

Not only are these practices unethical, they are counterproductive. If we really believe that open and honest public debate is essential for our democracy to thrive, if we really believe that “ideas tested publicly will lead to wiser decisions,” then thwarting debate through unethical communication practices will inevitably lead to poorer decisions and will ultimately undermine our democracy.

With that in mind, as the political season gets underway, I encourage all involved in the political process, especially those in leadership, to reflect deeply on the historic role of debate in democracy, and to personally recommit to ethical communication. Not only will that help to restore and preserve our democratic political heritage. It will help recover the fascinating art of political argument and debate.


Nancy Overgaard is a member of the Freeborn County Republican Party.